Bangweulu is a local word meaning “Where the Water Meets the Sky” – a fitting description for 6000km² of vast open water, interconnected swamps and rivers, and seasonally flooded grass plains. It is recognised by the Ramsar Convention as one of the world’s most important wetlands, and BirdLife International lists it as an ‘Important Bird Area’.
Over 400 bird species have been recorded here, although many travellers visit Bangweulu to catch a glimpse of one particular bird – the shoebill. These wetlands are well-known among birding circles worldwide to be one of the easiest places in Africa to see this decidedly strange and prehistoric-looking bird. There is an incredible diversity of birds that join the shoebill, with special species including the wattled crane, Denham’s bustard and southern ground hornbill.
Another unique species, of the four-legged kind this time, is the black lechwe, which is endemic to Bangweulu. There are over 100 000 of these striking antelopes that, like the red and Kafue Flats lechwe, love water and can be seen leaping gracefully through the waterlogged floodplains of Bangweulu. They share this wetland environment with tsessebe, reedbuck, oribi and the shy sitatunga. Larger animals include elephant, buffalo, zebra, hippo and crocodiles, with the only regularly seen or heard carnivores being spotted hyena and jackal.
A shoebill sighting in Bangweulu is almost guaranteed from May to August and usually happens during a canoe trip. While shoebills may not be as easily seen from September to November, this is prime birding season and, together with the majestic game animals around, might just make up for possibly missing the shoebill.
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