Zambia’s Liuwa National Park is one of the most remarkable conservation success stories in Southern Africa given that at one point, all but one of its lions had been killed with other wildlife critically declining in numbers. Sophie Ibbotson visits and discovers what can be achieved with the right vision, investment and commitment.
20 years ago, Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park was one of the last places you would have wanted to go to. This vast stretch of watery grasslands in the Western Province had been a royal hunting ground since the 1880s and is one of the oldest protected areas in Africa. In spite of its heritage and status, the Litunga (king) of Barotseland and the Government of Zambia after him had been unable to do anything to stop the carnage when poachers fled across the border into the park to escape the Angolan civil war. In the 1990s, all but one of the park’s lions were killed. All of the other large mammal species – blue wildebeest, cheetah, spotted hyena and numerous kinds of antelope – experienced a critical decline in numbers.
In recent years, however, a miracle has happened. Since African Parks took on the management of the park in 2003, Liuwa Plain’s ecosystem has steadily recovered. Lions have been reintroduced and are breeding, there is an important predator research station and the park now boasts the largest wildebeest migration after the Mara Serengeti.
Laura Burdett-Munns, MD of Africa Exclusive, recommended Liuwa Plain to me as one of the most remarkable conservation success stories in Southern Africa. Africa Exclusive encourages adventurous travellers like myself to visit “disappearing destinations” – those which may not be here to enjoy in a generation’s time due to climate change, urban encroachment and other man made tragedies – and by doing so, drawing attention to their plight. Highlighting best practice in sustainable travel, and the symbiotic relationship it can have with conservation and development, allows guests to travel with purpose, and Liuwa Plain is an inspiration. It shows what can be achieved with the right vision, investment and commitment.
Getting into the park is not without its challenges; there’s no escaping its remote location.
I flew into the Kalabo Airstrip on a tiny charter plane. It was the dry season, but even then there was no bridge across the river between the airstrip and the park. My guide edged our 4×4 onto a pontoon ferry, and Lozi ladies with their bags of shopping from the market bundled in alongside us. Men on the banks pulled the pontoon across using a steel cable, and I was grateful for the traction afforded by the 4WD when drove off onto the sandy track.
There are no tarmac roads within the park, and so in the rainy season they are all but impassable: you have to explore by boat instead, or fly into the lodge by helicopter. I like to drive, though; you see so much along the way, from the fishermen returning home after a day fishing in the pans, to children playing football, and then, as you get away from the villages and deeper into the park, herds of antelope, wildebeest and zebra, cranes, pelicans, eagles and more.
I came to see the migration, and had timed my visit to coincide with the time for calving. Before I’d even reached the Time+Tide King Lewanika Lodge, the only permanent camp in Liuwa Plain, I’d witnessed a newborn wildebeest calf take his first few faltering steps, and seen his day or two older cousins gambling through the grass.
Where there are young ungulates, or “an easy meal” as they are known in the food chain, there are going to be predators. The most obvious of these in Liuwa are the hyenas. In a normal, healthy ecosystem, hyenas are scavengers, eating what’s left of the carcasses killed by apex predators.
But in the years of absence of lions and cheetahs, Liuwa’s hyenas learned to hunt for themselves. They work as a pack, and though the cubs look cute and fluffy enough, even they are ruthlessly effective. I watched a hyena chow down on the spinal column of what had probably been a young zebra. His jaws were so powerful that he crunched straight through the bone.
One lion survived the destruction of Liuwa’s wildlife, and her name was Lady Liuwa. She is said to have had the incarnated spirit of a Lozi grandmother, and indeed when her lion brothers and sisters were all gone, she came to the villagers for company. Lady Liuwa’s story is one of the things which inspired African Parks to take on the challenge of restoring the national park; conservationists wanted to give her back her family
Reintroducing lions to Liuwa Park hasn’t been an easy ride. Even once the park was secured, lions didn’t return naturally. The first male brought here died of natural causes, and though two more followed and mated with Lady Liuwa, it seems that she was infertile.
Under the watchful eye of the Zambia Carnivore Programme, more lions and lionesses have been brought here (including from Kafue National Park), and thankfully they have settled in and begun to breed. The new arrivals were acclimated in a boma near the lodge, so they consider this area of Liuwa to be their natural territory.
The guides in Liuwa seem to know intuitively where the lions will be. We set out from the lodge after breakfast, carrying a picnic as we expected to be out all day. Barely half an hour had gone by, however, when the driver stopped the 4×4 and stood up on his seat, looking out across the plain through his binoculars. There was a herd of zebra on the horizon, and they were looking distinctly uneasy. Clearly they could see or smell something we could not, so we headed in their direction. At the lip of a pan filled with water, we encountered a complete lion family: mother, father and cubs of three different sizes. No wonder the zebras were perturbed.
In fact, they were safe, at least for the moment. The lion family had eaten their fill quite recently and weren’t in the mood for hunting. We sat at a respectful distance watching them drinking from the pan and playing with one another. The youngest cub wanted to play fight; his brothers threw off his efforts with good humour.
The light was fading as we were on our way back to the lodge. The sky had turned an elegant pinkish purple, and we could see for miles over the largely flat terrain. Something moved and caught the guide’s eagle eye. A cheetah had sat up tall, backlit against the sinking sun, in order to get a better view of where his next dinner might be. He’d broken the horizon light, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more stunning sight.
Sophie Ibbotson is the author of five Bradt Travel Guides, including the first guidebook to South Sudan. She travelled to Zambia with wildlife and wilderness specialists Africa Exclusive.