The Luangwa River

luangwa-river

T
he Luangwa Valley is one of Africa’s prime wildlife sanctuaries, with concentrations and varieties of game and birdlife that have made it world famous. This is the landscape of the ‘Real Africa’, with herds of antelope sheltering under thorn trees, or roaming the plains, predators skulking in the shadows and primordial drama in every vale.

The ‘Valley’ lies at the tail end of the Great Rift Valley, that continental fault which runs from the Red Sea down the length of East Africa. This accounts for the spectacular escarpment scenery in East Africa as well as the African Lakes.

As the Rift reaches Zambia, it divides; one arm to the east encompasses Lake Malawi and the western arm becomes the Luangwa Valley, which stretches some seven hundred kilometres at an average width of about one hundred kilometres.

In the west, the Muchinga Mountain range forms the limit of both the Valley and the parks. In the east is a similar, though less well defined escarpment. The Valley floor is about a thousand meters lower than the surrounding plateau.

Down the centre of the valley flows the Luangwa River, fed by dozens of sand rivers that come down during the rainy season. The Luangwa carves a tortuous course along the floor and when in flood rapidly erodes the outer bends, depositing silt within the loops. Eventually the river cuts a new course, leaving the old course to silt up, forming ‘ox bow’ lagoons. These lagoons are very important to the ecology of the riverine zone and account for the high carrying capacity of the area.

The countryside is spectacular in its rugged beauty, the vegetation thick and, near the Luangwa River and its many tributaries, a lush riverine forest occurs that is green all year round. Flanking the rivers western banks are the North and South Luangwa National Parks separated by the 30km Munyamadzi corridor. To the east, between the two main parks is another small and as yet undeveloped Park called Luambe. Further east on the rocky uplands beyond the flood plain is the Lukusuzi National Park, also undeveloped but plans are in the pipeline.

The History of Game Protection in the Valley

The development of game protection in the area began in the late 19th century when the British South Africa Company was administering the territory. They imposed a total ban on the hunting of hippo and elephant due to massive exploitation by the Chikunda tribe from Mozambique and the Arab traders from Malawi. Today there is an over-abundance of hippos along the Luangwa River.

With the recovery of elephant numbers, the BSAC established the first game reserve in the Luamfwa region in 1904, also intending to protect the last remaining species of the endemic Thornicroft’s Giraffe. It was deproclaimed in 1911, but then elephant populations began to get out of control, jeopardising the livelihood of the local villagers. Certain hunters were given to licences to shoot the crop raiding elephants, but the temptation to shoot the biggest ones for their tusks was too great. An in depth survey was completed in 1932 recommending the proclamation of game reserves and the appointment of an elephant control department.

The North and South Parks and Luambe were proclaimed in 1938 and two young men, Norman Carr and Bert Schultz were appointed as game rangers in 1939. Villages within the reserves were moved to the periphery. In the late 1940’s Carr recommended that hunting safaris be operated here with the revenues going to the local Native Authorities. Game rangers from the department were seconded to act as professional hunters.

In 1951 Carr persuaded one of the local Chiefs to set aside a portion of his tribal land as a game reserve bordering the park and a safari camp was built there with some of the proceeds going back to the community. Later, a pontoon was erected across the Luangwa River and a few other camps were established. As the years went by, all weather roads were installed and other safari companies emerged.

In 1973 the elephant population was estimated to be 100 000 and found to be causing a major impact on the surrounding areas, but poaching was rampant too and numbers of elephant and the endangered rhino, began to decline steadily.

The privately funded Save the Rhino Trust was established in 1980 and extensive anti-poaching patrols were carried out. Elephant poaching was curbed to some extent but rhinos unfortunately could not be saved and today they are entirely absent from the area. The reward from foreigners for their sought after horns, being too great a temptation to the penniless villagers.

Today there are about 20 operators in the valley, spread out along 150 kilometers of the Luangwa River. They range from budget camps to sophisticated lodges and offer walking safaris, game drives, night drives and photographic safaris.