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Pride ofplace

Trip Report

KAFUE NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA

A pair of lions from one of the Shumba Camp area’s three prides

WORDS SOPHIE STAFFORD PHOTOS NEIL ALDRIDGE

The seemingly endless floodplains of Zambia’s Kafue National Park are rich in rare wildlife. It was in this beautiful yet harsh environment that Sophie Stafford met the ‘swamp lions’ of the Busanga Plains

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SEPTEMBER 2014 35


lioness There’s a

on my balcony. She’s apparently decided that the elevated platform on which the room perches is the perfect spot for an afternoon snooze. As I watch from the vehicle, still queasy after my arrival by light aircraft, she rises to her paws and gazes through the room’s glass doors, perhaps wondering if, like Goldilocks, she should try out the four-poster bed for size. Suddenly there’s a movement in the shadows just behind her and a plump cub solemnly pads to her side.

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other and son seem so relaxed I almost expect them to saunter all the way into Shumba Camp’s dining area and order a cocktail. But as the pair reach the connecting walkway they flop down, paws dangling nonchalantly over the edge. The cub gazes at me with bright amber eyes, then, bored as quickly as a child, winds himself under his mother’s chin, demanding attention. Ignoring him, she rises again, slips to the ground and vanishes into the long grass. The cub cries plaintively, softly at first but with increasing petulance. When the lioness reappears, she has two more cubs in tow and leads her family out onto the plain in front of the camp. Reunited, the siblings box and wrestle, all baby fat and tiny pointy teeth. Their mother stretches out in the sun, clearly unconcerned about being stalked by our solitary 4x4. Eventually the family move on and we head into camp, astonished to have experienced such an intimate encounter with the area’s apex predator before we’ve even unpacked. We probably shouldn’t have been surprised; ‘Shumba’ means lion in the local dialect and the camp shares the plains with no fewer than three prides. At 22,400 sq km Kafue is the largest (and oldest) National Park in Zambia and is often lauded as having the most varied antelope viewing on the continent. But I had travelled to this remote northwestern corner in search of lions. The Busanga Plains – a vast, flat, pristine expanse of grassy seasonal floodplain – were unlike anything I had experienced in Africa before. Crowned by a huge expanse of blue sky, they stretch smoothly to the horizon in all directions, dissolving in places into a labyrinth of muddy

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Clockwise from top: mother and cub treat the decking of Shumba Camp as their own personal lookout; a magnificent male red lechwe with his herd; a wattled crane; Busanga Plains from the air

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Trip Report

KAFUE NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA

Lion research Assessing the threats to Kafue’s lions to devise a long-term strategy

Right: the lioness drags her kill into the shade for her cubs. Below: the comfortable viewing area of Shumba Camp

The Busanga Plains is a vast, flat, pristine expanse of grassy seasonal floodplain channels, hippo pools and papyrus swamps, sprinkled with isolated tree islands. Here, perched atop ancient termite mounds, the tall, cactus-like candelabras of Euphorbia battled for anchorage and elevation with acacias and majestic sycamore figs. The figs are well-loved by the local Busanga pride, who, on the hottest days of the year in late September and early October, find respite from biting flies in their broad-spreading branches, a habit for which they have become famous. Next morning, as the stars dimmed and the sky blushed with the first faint light of dawn, we ate breakfast overlooking plains swaddled in mist and studded with the silhouettes of hundreds of grazing antelopes. Our meal was interrupted with the news that the lioness had made a kill. We rushed to our 4x4, and found the family on a swathe of blackened ground. Bushfires often sweep through Kafue and this one had burned for three days. Now, just two weeks later, wildlifeextra.com

Lions are in trouble. They have been wiped out in over 80 per cent of their historical range in Africa, and studies estimate that they have declined in number from more than 100,000 to possibly as low as 20,000 over the past 50 years. Due to its size and relatively low human population density, Zambia is one of only seven countries estimated to have a population in excess of 1,000 wild lions, and is thus of strategic importance to the species’ future. Kafue National Park (KNP) is a potential stronghold for lions, not just in Zambia, but in the whole of southern Africa. Currently, however, little is known about the size and health of the lion population in the region. So the Kafue Lion Project was set up to determine the current conservation status of the species in the park, and identify the threats facing lions in the greater Kafue system. To assess the status of the KNP’s lion population, the team counted lion spoors (tracks) and prey, performed call-up surveys (where prey distress calls are played to attract lions so they can be counted), and radiocollared key prides to determine whether numbers are being

limited by natural or anthropogenic factors. They found that lions in the area face a number of potential threats. These include poaching, both subsistence and commercial, which has a devastating effect on lions and their prey; fire, which also affects the lions’ prey and threatens cubs at the den; flooding, which may impact cub survival during the wet season; and trophy hunting in adjacent areas, which affects lion populations within the protected region. Long-term, the ambition of the people who work on the Kafue Lion Project is to develop a plan that will ensure the sustainable management of lions in the greater KNP system and contribute to a countrywide Lion Management Strategy.

fresh growth was already pushing its way up through the black dust, attracting a variety of grazers.

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he lioness was lying beside the body of a red lechwe, a beard of blood drying on her chin, while the cubs played nearby. She ignored our arrival, but with the sun gaining heat and vultures taking to thermals in search of an easy meal, it was time to move the meat into the shade. Gripping the lechwe’s long pale throat, she straddled its body and began to haul it to a nearby tree island, its long legs trailing like an unstuffed teddy bear. Curious, the cubs raced back to their mother. One jumped up at her tail, playfully biting her rump, while another surfed on the trailing antelope, front paws clinging to its hide, rear paws paddling hard to keep up. With the eternal patience of motherhood, the lioness grunted a gentle warning. She was clearly not only an excellent hunter but a great mum, giving her SEPTEMBER 2014 39


Trip Report

KAFUE NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA

“In the long blonde hippo grass, we spotted a patch of chocolate brown fur. It was the luxuriant mane of the alpha male of the Busanga pride”

Clockwise from right: hot air balloon flights over the Plains; great white pelicans preening; the rare and beautiful roan; a hippo emerges from its muddy wallow; Leonard, the handsome alpha male of the Busanga pride

cubs the best possible start even without the help of her pride. Leaving the family to fill their bellies, we took a bone-shaking track across the plains, where male crowned cranes bounced and leaped, wings outstretched, to impress females, and ubiquitous red lechwe, puku and tiny oribi, grazed confidently in the open landscape, safe from ambush predators. It was an even rarer antelope I hoped to see, because Busanga is famous for them. Sure enough, we were soon spellbound by a herd of more than 30 roan. They seemed equally fascinated by us, staring without blinking, as if playing a game of musical statues. Eventually, one large dusky male approached, his long, tassel-tipped ears cocked at 10 to two, and coughed sternly. He was perhaps warning us not to come any nearer, but I found it hard to take such a comical- looking antelope seriously.

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s you might expect, a density of plains game here – antelopes, buffalo, wildebeest and zebra – attracts an equal profusion of predators: mainly lions, but also cheetah, leopard, spotted hyena, serval and wild dog, which our guide Idos Mulenga claimed to have seen for 28 days on the trot before we arrived. Typical! A more obliging species lived in the nearby Lufupa Channel, a freshwater filigree of shallow pools, swamps and gullies. With Idos promising to get us closer than we thought possible, we took to the water in a specially adapted boat. At the edge, a pod of more than 20 hippos was sleeping in a pile, like a heap of kittens. On our approach they rose, casting anxious looks in our direction, and slid into deeper water, mud melting from their backs. They were the most timid hippos I’d ever met, and as we squeezed past barely a foot away, they submerged sheepishly. Heading upstream, we enjoyed eye-level views of newly 40 SEPTEMBER 2014

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arrived great white pelicans preening travel-weary wings, yellow-billed storks stalking fish in the shallows, wattled cranes posing, and rotund male lechwe – noses in the grass, rumps in the air – guarding a harem of females from unwanted suitors. Then, in the long blonde hippo grass, we spotted a patch of chocolate brown fur. It was the luxuriant mane of the alpha male of the Busanga pride; nicknamed “Leonard” by the guides. The rest of the pride sprawled further away, invisible but for the pale belly of a lioness snoozing on her back, paws in the air. Before I knew it, I was out of the boat and sneaking up on the sleeping lion. Just 25m away we stopped to take a photo and, at the click of the shutter, Leonard leapt to his feet and twisted to stare at us in surprise. He was clearly mystified as to how mere humans had managed to creep up on him, but he trotted away with all the leonine poise he could muster, flaxen mane bouncing gently like an ad for shampoo. Back at camp, we were met with grim news: the lioness had lost her cubs. We dashed to where she had been seen and found her looking exhausted, calling forlornly, over and over. Idos surmised that she had stashed the cubs while she went hunting and they had wandered away, scared off by a predator perhaps… or worse. He feared the cubs might be victims of the mysterious high mortality haunting the Busanga pride. “Things started to go wrong when a lioness – one of its most successful hunters – was killed by a buffalo,” Idos explained. “Shortly afterwards, her sub-adult cub was seen biting the heads off terrapins, clearly starving.” Another lioness died from an infected paw, perhaps a crocodile bite, proving that even adults succumb to this harsh environment. More sinisterly, the pride has never successfully raised cubs to adulthood. “When the camp is closed in SEPTEMBER 2014 41


Trip Report

KAFUE NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA Here: a Busanga cub that managed to get itself lost; one of the Musansa Boys taking liberties with a Busanga female

November for the floods, the young are about eight months old, alive and well,” said Idos. “But when the floodwaters recede in May, they are nowhere to be found.” He fears the pride breeds too late and the cubs are not big and strong enough to survive February floods that turn the sea of grass to an ocean of water.

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he next day, as the dawning sun burned clouds of steam from the water and silenced the churring of the nightjars, we heard that lions were mating near camp. With the taste of croissants and coffee still fresh in our mouths, we hastened to the scene. The lovers lolled, in a post-coital daze, on a huge termite mound crowned with golden grass. Rising to his feet, the male sniffed the female and we were surprised to see he was not Leonard but one of the “Musansa Boys”, two bold brothers living 40km to the southeast who were increasingly ignoring territorial boundaries. The male was in peak condition, well-muscled beneath a beautiful tawny coat, and clearly not afraid to risk the territoryholder’s wrath – not only was he trespassing in the heart of the Busanga pride’s territory, he was mating with one of Leonard’s lionesses. And when he had finished, he astonished everyone by roaring provocatively, the sonorous sound reverberating in

TRIP ADVISER cost rating SAMPLE PACKAGE TOUR:

Four nights, including two nights at Shumba Camp and two nights at Busanga Plains Camp, on an all-inclusive basis (food, most beverages, accommodation, activities including a hot air balloon ride, and light aircraft transfers from Lusaka) costs £2,500 per person. You could also add two nights at Toka Leya Camp in Livingstone for Victoria Falls. 42 SEPTEMBER 2014

GETTING THERE: South African Airways offer daily flights from London Heathrow to Lusaka, travelling via Johannesburg, for around £800 per person return. VISA REQUIREMENTS FROM THE UK: UK passport holders require

a visa to enter Zambia, which can be obtained at your point of entry for US$50 per person.

TIPS & WARNINGS: Zambia is a malarial area and also has a danger of yellow fever. If you are passing through South Africa on your return

our chests – a clear challenge to Leonard’s dominance. From the ensuing silence, it seemed that the alpha male preferred to look the other way, his scar-free face perhaps indicating that he’s a lover, not a fighter. With the Musansa Boys moving deeper onto the plains and mating with the local females, the era of the Busanga pride could be coming to an end. In that case, the three cubs may be its last hope. Only through them will the tree-climbing skills of the swamp lions of Busanga survive. Our time on the plains was ending, but as we headed to the airstrip, we heard good news – the lioness had found her cubs. With such a super-mum, they have every chance of survival.

journey you will need a yellow fever certificate even if you are just in transit. Other countries you may holiday in will also ask for a certificate. The currency in Zambia is Kwacha, which must be used for all domestic transactions, including departure taxes. USD, Sterling, Euros and most major currencies can be exchanged at the airports. Cash can be withdrawn from ATMs at the airport, while larger retail outlets and lodges or hotels accept major credit cards.

WHEN TO GO: From the beginning of June to the end of October.

TOUR OPERATORS WILDERNESS SAFARIS, Tel: +27 11 807 1800; www.wilderness-safaris.com (for direct booking) Expert Africa, Tel: 020 8232 9777; www.expertafrica.com Rainbow Tours, Tel: 020 7666 1250; www.rainbowtours.co.uk Abercrombie & Kent, Tel: 0845 482 0510; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk

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Wild Travel - the lions of Busanga  

Writer Sophie Stafford and photographer Neil Aldridge go in search of the famous lions of Zambia's Busanga Plains...

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