If it’s classic African animals you want, Zambia’s national parks are where you’ll find them. Without doubt, this is one of the finest safari destinations in Africa.
The main national parks, such as South Luangwa, Lower Zambezi and Kafue, focus on rivers, and these support huge hippopotamus and crocodile populations – always ready to add a frisson of excitement to canoe safaris.
Elephants are found in good numbers in South Luangwa, Lower Zambezi and some other national parks. Most parks also contain large herds of buffaloes (sometimes called African or Cape buffalo).
Back from the rivers, the woods and grassland provide plenty of grazing for huge herds of ‘plains game’ such as zebras, impalas and pukus, the latter being a type of antelope common in Zambia but more unusual elsewhere. In the bush you’ll also see waterbucks (both the common and Defassa varieties), bushbucks and smaller antelopes such as duikers and klipspringers.
Where there are grazers, you will find predators. You have a good chance of seeing lions, leopards and hyenas, but cheetahs are more elusive. Wild dogs were once very rare, but are now encountered more frequently.
Zambia’s herds of black rhinos were destroyed by poachers in the 1970s and 1980s. There may be a few old loners hanging on in very remote areas, but these are never seen. However, you’re virtually guaranteed a sighting of the white rhinos in the Game Park near Victoria Falls.
In contrast to the handful of rhinos, Zambia has massive populations of lechwe antelopes. On the grasslands near Lake Bangweulu you can see vast herds of black lechwes, an uncommon subspecies, sometimes stretching to the horizon. In western Zambia there’s another endemic – the Kafue lechwe. Kasanka National Park is one of the best places in Africa to see sitatungas – uncommon and notoriously shy water-loving antelopes.
South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks are good places to see tall and graceful giraffes, and Zambia has its own subspecies, Thornicroft’s giraffe. One word you wouldn’t apply to another species, the wildebeest, is graceful, but among the quietly grazing herds there’s inevitably a clown or two to provide entertainment. Again, South Luangwa has an endemic subspecies – the light-coloured Cookson’s wildebeest – but the best place to see them is Liuwa Plain, a remote grassland area in western Zambia. Despite being described as ‘more of a meander’, the annual wildebeest migration here is a massive event, second only to the famous Serengeti migration in Tanzania.
The most notable reptile in Zambia is the Nile crocodile. Although greatly reduced by hunting and habitat destruction, crocodiles are still widespread and pose a constant danger to local people living near rivers and lakes. You’re almost guaranteed to see crocodiles in national parks such as South Luangwa, Kafue and Lower Zambezi, basking on sandbanks or floating log-like with just scaly spine and nostrils visible.
A good guide to the age of a croc, in addition to size, is colour. After three months’ incubation in the hot sand, the young emerge from their eggs – almost avocado green in colour. As they age, also just as avocados do, they darken to nearly black.
From the hot and dusty Zambezi Valley to the cool highlands of the Nyika Plateau, from the bathroom ceiling to the kitchen sink, Zambia has plenty of lizards. The largest is the water monitor, a docile creature that reaches 1.5m in length, often seen lying around waterholes, perhaps dreaming of being a crocodile. Two other lizards frequently seen are chameleons and geckos – the latter often in hotel rooms, where they are quite harmless and help to keep bugs down.
Zambia has a complement of both venomous and harmless snakes but most have a healthy fear of people and you’ll be lucky to even see one. The largest snake – harmless to humans – is the python, which grows to over 5m in length.