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"Where The Water Meets The Sky" is an apt description of Lake Bangweulu in northern Zambia. The lake and wetland area is one of the most interesting water systems in the world. Consisting of more than the permanent lake, adjacent floodplains are inundated every rainy season to cover 5,830 square miles. The lake itself covers more than 740,000 acres and is divided by sand ridges into three smaller sections called Lake Chifunabuli, Lake Walilupe, and the main Lake Bangweulu. The sand ridge islands are Mbalala Island and Chilubi Island with two associated peninsulas, Lifunge Peninsula and Kapata Peninsula. Over 90,000 people live in the wetlands on 'islands' of dry land, cultivating some basic crops like cassava and maize and by fishing. It is here the famed explorer Dr. David Livingston died; a monument in his honor stands about 60 miles from the lake.
The vast wetland system is fed by 17 rivers; flooding occurs between October and April each year. The waters support vast stands of papyrus and reeds and over 80 species of fish. The aquatic inhabitants are primarily types of tilapia and catfish, usually small and rapidly reproducing. As the human population continues to grow in the area, there are concerns that overfishing could easily occur. Travel during the wet season is mostly by canoe or dugout, with a few more modern personal boats sharing the waters. A few commercial 'banana boats' take passengers from place to place but have never become a major source of transportation. Today, rough roads connect some of these settlements. The largest village on the lakeshore is Samfya, along the southwest portion of the shore. Eco-scientists are developing a strong interest in the unique hydrology of the area and the unusual flora and fauna it supports.
The wetland is one of the few places where the wetland antelope-the black lechwe-thrives. There are no longer any large cats in the area, having been exterminated by humans. The black lechwe exists in this watery world due to a natural coating on their legs that sheds water and allows them to travel quickly through swamps. Although they graze primarily on the dry 'islands' throughout the wetlands, the entire area is filled with lagoons, bays, small lakes, ponds and channels between them. The black lechwe join oribi, reedbuck, African buffalo, tsessebe, elephant, sitatunga, hippopotamus and crocodile in the wetland and rivers. Huge numbers of waterfowl and shore birds, some extremely rare, nest here and include sacred ibis, saddle-billed stork, pelican, flamingo, spoonbill, spur-winged goose, glossy ibis, Denham's bustard, black-crowned night heron and many others.
The Bangweulu Wetland is one of the few breeding grounds of the increasingly rare shoebill. This large bird nests on the ground and has only two chicks a year, only one of which will ordinarily grow to adulthood. Because the shoebill is disappearing at a rapid pace, a rescue reserve has been set up by Kasanka National Park within the wetland at Shoebill Island Camp in an effort to monitor and protect the shoebill and provide visitors with a chance to see these rare birds. This area is the closest thing to a real protected area within the wetland. Although a part of the Bangweulu Wetlands have been declared a RAMSAR wetland, further action has not so far been possible due to the large numbers of people who draw their livelihood from Lake Bangweulu and the wetlands. Efforts are underway to gain National Park status for at least part of the wetland, but increasing numbers of people have arrived here as copper mining undergoes reorganization in Zambia, leaving them without a means of feeding their families. The government of Zambia is also soliciting applications for fish farming operations in the area; the possible ramifications of such an industry are unknown.
In an effort to preserve this valuable wetland without depriving the native people of their livelihood, the Bangweulu Wetlands 'Park' is attempting to stop poaching of the animals in the park for food and working with local village chiefs to build eco-tourism as a viable alternative economic system. The Bangweulu Wetlands Project is a partnership between the Zambia Wildlife Authority, African Parks, and six local chieftains whose lands fall within the wetland. The Nsobe Community Camp Site was constructed to provide a base for visitors to enjoy the wetland within proscribed guidelines, The communities share half of the profits from the camp, and staff have trained park rangers to patrol and stop poaching whenever possible. Several small eco-tourism organizations provide birding, wildlife viewing and trekking opportunities to visitors. One of the newest activities in 2013 was a mountain bike challenge/tour across parts of the wetland during the dry season. This grueling trek was tightly limited to a few participants and may be repeated in coming years.
Lodgings in the area are limited. At least one 'safari-resort' is located on Lake Bangweulu, but repeated warnings to travelers suggest the site may not be safe from violence against foreign visitors. The Nsobe Community Camp Site and the few eco-tourism camps within the wetlands are likely a far safer option for travelers from outside the area. Getting to Lake Bangweulu is somewhat difficult. The lake is about 60 miles from Mansa, the nearest sizable city. Road conditions are less than ideal. Probably the best way to arrange a trip to view Lake Bangweulu and the Bangweulu Wetlands is to book an eco-tour directly through the proprietors themselves as they will be able to arrange the best travel arrangements and the safest lodgings. How long the wetlands and their unique environment will remain depends on creating a thriving eco-tourism base and accompanying protections enforced by the Zambia government. In the meantime, there is a shoebill waiting to meet you!
*Statistics are rough estimates as the lake's shorelines are not well defined and change throughout the year. Water volume is an estimate for the entire wetland area.
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