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Images and storytelling by Mana Meadows  

@mana_meadows / @conservationstorytelling  

Bangweulu Wetlands

If you’re looking to do something different, where the landscape is soft and quiet, where the tranquility of open water and the sounds of birdcalls seep into your psyche and force you into the slow lane, then Bangweulu is waiting for you. Here, the birds and the bees take center stage. Soak up the peaceful silence of a late afternoon paddle, broken only by sweet croak of a little bee-eater, or the brilliant flash of a lily-trotting African purple swamphen.  

With planning, you might also see the rare and highly endangered shoebill – a top Bangweulu attraction. Clownish, clumsy, and prehistoric– the shoebill can be all of these things, but when it turns and looks you straight in the eye, you pay attention. Are you looking into the eyes of a bird? A reptile? A dinosaur? Or a creature that is a little bit of all three? Call me fanciful, but the first time I saw one of these incredible creatures I was a little convinced of the latter. It was an experience I will never forget.  

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Highly sought after for the illegal wildlife trade, shoebill numbers have plummeted in recent years. With the help of the surrounding community, Bangweulu management is working hard to save the species and their efforts are paying off.  

And not only shoebills find solace in this expansive water world. The wetlands are also home to 10% of the world’s wattled crane population –  and over 400 species of bird! Internationally recognized for their environmental importance, the wetlands have been declared a “Wetlands of Ecological Importance” under the RAMSAR Convention and Birdlife International have also designated it as an “Important Bird Area”.  

Mammal lovers need not fear: you’ll still find buffalo, puku, waterbuck, zebra and impala in the miombo woodlands, and hyena, side-striped jackal and serval too. As of December 2020, the exciting news is that cheetah have been reintroduced.  

But on the mammalian front, first prize must go to Bangweulu’s thousands and thousands of the endangered black lechwe. They are only found in Bangweulu – and the wetlands are home to 50 000 of them. And to see them in their numbers is quite spectacular.  

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The wetlands are unique in that they are community owned and 50 000 local residents call them home. Bangweulu is run as a partnership between six separate communities, Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, and the non-governmental organization African Parks. The people of Bangweulu truly are people of the water – they navigate their mokoros with grace and dexterity and the unusual juxtaposition of communities living and fishing alongside wildlife is a common and thought-provoking sight.

Bangweulu means “where the water meets the sky” – when you arrive you will see why.  Whatever you do – get on the water. This supremely relaxing mode of seeing Bangweulu provides a refreshing new vantage point and opens up a whole new world. Birds are surprisingly tolerant of your approach.  Sunset on the water is hard to beat – although a dawn paddle is also exciting as in the mornings lechwe are often on the move in the mornings, crossing deep channels to get to preferred grazing areas.

For the Self-Driver

Stay at Nkondo Safari Camp on the way in to the wetlands. It is located in the beautiful miombo woodland near the park’s headquarters. Then head out to the wetlands, basing up at Nsobe Camp on the edge of the Chimbwe Plain woodlands from where you can explore the plains wildlife, and also plan canoe trips and shoebill visits.  If you’re interested in a little more luxury, the exciting news is that the beautifully refurbished Shoebill Island lodge recently reopened. With a sweeping view of the surrounding plains the camp sleeps eight and offers walking, game drives, canoeing, birding and shoebill walks. 

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