Sunrise over the South Luangwa catches an breeding herd of elephants on the move

Sunrise over the South Luangwa catches a breeding herd of elephants on the move

October was dominated by a three-week assignment to Zambia’s flagship national park. The late dry season is an incredible time to be in the bush, especially a wildlife-rich place like the South Luangwa. The game viewing was outstanding; the people were friendly; and the conservation work was nothing short of inspirational.

Kindly assisted by Robin Pope Safaris (RPS), the trip focused on the outstanding work being done by the South Luangwa Conservation Society (SLCS) – www.slcszambia.org – to support the dysfunctional wildlife authority in managing this important African asset. Working hand-in-hand with SLCS is another laudable NGO: the dynamic Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP) – www.zambiacarnivores.org.

A ZCP research team fit a VHF radio collar to a lioness

ZCP researchers fit a VHF radio collar to a lioness

Headquartered in the South Luangwa, the ZCP is a non-profit research organisation dedicated to conserving Zambia’s large carnivore species as well as protecting the pristine ecosystems in which they reside. Under the leadership of the tireless Dr Matt Becker the organisation also focuses some of its seemingly inexhaustible energy on finding, training, mentoring and supporting promising Zambian wildlife professionals to attain internationally recognised graduate degrees based on their research data. The admirable long-term thinking being that competent, well-trained Zambians must take responsibility for their own wildlife heritage.

Zambia is an impressive country with relatively low population density and a rich wildlife heritage conserved within thousands of square kilometres of protected natural habitat. The country’s three most impressive national parks centre on its three greatest rivers – the Zambezi, Kafue and Luangwa – but it is the iconic South Luangwa that tops this list.

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

A joint SLCS-ZCP team removes a thick wire snare

Sadly, however, things in paradise aren’t quite as perfect as they might seem at first glance. It didn’t take long to discover that the South Luangwa and its surrounding Game Management Areas (GMAs) are under ever-increasing pressure from hungry local communities and, more worryingly, the commercial bush-meat trade. Wire snaring is endemic and if current trends continue, this gruesome and indiscriminate form of poaching will ultimately finish Zambia’s wildlife.

I was fortunate enough to join a joint SLCS-ZCP team when they went out to locate and dart a snared lioness. It was a hectic experience to see a lioness so severely incapacitated by her deep neck wound; but also uplifting to see her resilience after the team had removed the wire snare and cleaned up her wounds. Rachel McRobb of SLCS estimated that this Chowo lioness was probably around the 300th animal they had successfully de-snared to date.

To address these challenges, real benefits and a dramatic mindset shift have to be achieved within the communities that surround the park. But considering the number of local people involved, it’s a monumentally difficult task. One shining light in this area is the donor-funded Chipembele Wildlife Education Centre – www.chipembele.org – which is actively educating secondary school kids in the Mfuwe area as to the value of wildlife and the importance of the wildlife-based economy to the region.

South Luangwa is home to some of the best wildlife viewing and animal encounters on the continent

South Luangwa is home to some of the best wildlife viewing and animal encounters on the continent

Fortunately, my South Luangwa assignment wasn’t all ‘work’ and no play… I was lucky enough to also sample a number of the Robin Pope Safaris – www.robinpopesafaris.net – lodges and bush camps.  After easing my way into the Luangwa lifestyle at Luangwa River Camp in the perennially popular Mfuwe area, I headed northeast and into the wilder Nsefu sector.  It was here that I sampled what I believe to be one of the finest African safari products currently available: Luangwa Bush Camping.

It's not just the 'big n hairies' that impress

South Luangwa is not just about the ‘big and hairies’

Restricted to a maximum of six guests and under the watchful eye of Kanga (our expert nature guide) and his team, I enjoyed a three-day walking safari from this mobile bush camp. We ate like kings and slept alongside the river in an unbelievably luxurious tented camp that moved site every day after we set out on foot. The animals were thick on the ground and aside from the ubiquitous hippos, crocodiles, puku, impala and baboons; we were treated to exciting encounters with elephant, lion and leopard almost every day. Luangwa Bush Camping was the highlight of my Luangwa safari and I would wholeheartedly recommend this (or one of RPS’s other mobile safari options) to any safari enthusiast who enjoys experiencing nature up close and personal on foot.

The RPS segment of my trip concluded with three nights at the newly renovated Tena Tena bush camp.  It was a great spot and the wildlife viewing was outstanding. Nothing more so than witnessing seven lions killing an adult male buffalo in an epic hour-long battle that saw the old dugga boy throwing lions off his muzzle and putting up a spirited fight. It was a never-to-be-fogotten sighting and a fitting way to end my assignment into one of Africa’s greatest game parks.

Survival of the fittest: he wilds of Africa are a harsh and unforgiving place

The wilds of Africa are a harsh and unforgiving place where only the strongest survive