What wildlife is in Zambia

Zambia and its wildlife attract swooning descriptions. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia’s most celebrated park, is often referred to as one of Africa’s last great wildernesses, and coming on safari to Zambia is likened to time-traveling, a chance to discover a truly pristine landscape, just as much of Africa looked in the 1950s – and with the abundant wildlife to match. Zambia’s low visitor numbers (compared to Kenya or South Africa, say) and vast, open spaces certainly make wildlife spotting here a joy. Often, the spectacle of a leopard taking down a lechwe or elephants drinking at a waterhole is yours to enjoy exclusively, without a cluster of safari vehicles for company.
Zambia is home to a great diversity of habitats which happily support an abundance of creatures, great and small, including lion, leopard, elephant and giraffe. Zambia has more water than any other country in Africa, including five huge lakes and 17 waterfalls. The Luangwa Valley alone is home to an astonishing 100 species of mammal and more than 400 bird species, and all in amazing density, too, particularly along the river’s banks and fertile floodplains.
Sadly, this relative abundance is nothing on the Zambia of the early 20th century, when most of its rural areas supported quantities of wildlife at levels similar to what you’ll find only in the national parks today. The Big Five were widespread outside reserves and parks, too, but in 1998 the rhinoceros was declared extinct in Zambia, thanks to rampant poaching, and today elephant, leopard, lion and Cape buffalo are found, but almost exclusively in parks. Poaching combined with a growing human population and the consequent loss of habitat, especially forest and woodland, is the main cause of this decline and responsible wildlife tourism, one part of the solution.

What to spot in Zambia

Two of Africa’s most charismatic predators live in Zambia. Lions are found in all the major parks in Zambia: South Luangwa, Kafue, North Luangwa and Lower Zambezi. In the southern part of South Luangwa the territories of the lion prides are quite small and the numbers in the groups quite large, some over 20, so sightings here can be spectacular. South Luangwa is renowned as being the place to see leopards, too, and it’s one of Africa’s few national parks to allow spot-lit night drives so you can peer into this beautiful predator’s nocturnal world and seem them slinking off to hunt. The ethical and respectful guiding policy employed in the park means that leopards in the Luangwa Valley have become used to vehicles and will carry on hunting and feeding in their presence, which makes for amazing sightings.

The other main predators in Zambia include the spotted hyena and the seriously endangered African hunting dog. These pack animals are a rare but exciting spot in Zambia, and can sometimes be seen sunning themselves in the early morning in big, furry, dozy groups. When fully awake and out hunting, they can hit speeds of 55km per hour over several kilometres as they pursue their prey, relying on their eyesight rather than sense of smell.

Thanks to the presence of plenty of rivers in Zambia, the country is a hotspot for hippos. They gather in massive pods of 60 or more, wallowing and honking by day, feeding by night. Along the Luangwa River the official count is 48 per kilometre of river. It’s a hippo pile up! Elephants can also be seen throughout Zambia’s national parks, often lining the river banks to feed and bathe – a thrilling sight, particularly if you’re in a canoe at the time. Cape buffalo are numerous, too, and both buffalo and elephant have the freedom to move throughout the parks and their surrounding Game Management Areas.
South Luangwa National Park is home to three endemic species: Thornicroft’s giraffe, Cookson’s wildebeest and Crawshay’s zebra. Here and throughout Zambia’s parks you’ll also find baboons and vervet monkeys, warthogs and zebra, and all the prancing game that Zambia’s stealthy predators love to eat: impala, lechwe, kudu, bushbuck and puku, a furry orange antelope with thick V shaped horns, found only in Zambia. In November every year, enormous herds of blue wildebeest migrate across the Liuwa plains in the west of the country. Few standard safari itineraries include this remote wilderness, but a tailor made trip could get you there to see this incredible spectacle.
If you want to see the largest migration of mammals anywhere in the world, Zambia’s the place, too. The Great Migration of wildebeest through Tanzania and Kenya may rank as Africa’s most famous wildlife spectacle, but for sheer numbers, it’s the annual migration of straw coloured fruit bats that wins the prize. To see it, come to Kasanka National Park, one of the most picturesque parks in Zambia. From late October to early December as many as 10 million straw coloured fruits bats migrate from the Congo Basin to a single stand of forest here, in search of certain trees that come into fruit with the start of the rains. Seeing the bats fly out each evening from their roosts to feed is an extraordinary display. Birds of prey swoop in, too, in huge numbers, looking for an easy meal.
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The best ways to see wildlife in Zambia

Game drives are of course on offer throughout Zambia’s national parks, and South Luangwa National Park is one of the few places where night drives are permitted, with a spot light, so you can spy nocturnal animals going about their business. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of a leopard hunting, as these predators prefer cover of darkness to sneak up on prey.
The walking safari was first pioneered in Zambia and getting out on foot to spot wildlife, both big and tiny, is a really special experience. South Luangwa is the park where walking safaris were first introduced, and taking one here reveals both the micro and macro life of this beautiful landscape, from insects to elephant tracks. Of course, you may come across large game, too, such as hippos, buffaloes and giraffes, as well as a variety of birdlife. Throughout, you’ll be accompanied by qualified, experienced guides – one in front, one at the rear of your walking group – who will brief you on how to behave and stay safe when on foot.
Walking safaris are usually included as part of a standard safari, but if you want to make walking the main focus of your Zambia explorations, try a week long walking and mobile camping safari that follows the path of the Mupamadzi River, walking around 10km each day. Each night you stay at fully serviced mobile camps, with walk-in tents and beds, before striding out again the next day.
Another superb way to see and experience Zambia’s bountiful wildlife is from the water. A canoe safari on the river in Lower Zambezi National Park is a chance to cruise past hippo pods and basking crocs, spotting elephants feeding on the lush riverside grass (favoured by older animals with poor teeth, as it’s nice and soft), plus all kinds of beautiful birdlife. A day long experience is great, but if you want to flex your adventurous muscles, try a 10 day canoe adventure, which takes you deeper into the wilderness, stopping to wild camp on sandy riverside beaches each night.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps] [Top box (elephant): Henning Borgersen] [What to spot (African hunting dogs): flowcomm] [What to spot (warthog): Henning Borgersen] [Best ways to see (zebra): Damien Firmenich] [Hippos: Rob Oo]