Where Kalahari Meets Congo
African Birdlife|January - February 2021
For many people, the far north-west of Zambia is both the source of the mighty Zambezi and the ‘land of pineapples’. For the country’s own naturalists this region is important for tens of other reasons – reasons that give them goosebumps and set them drooling. The districts of Mwinilunga and Ikelenge, for example, were known to be incredibly biodiverse, yet for years were barely visited on account of their extreme remoteness. A recent renaissance in exploration is confirming that there is still much to be discovered about the wealth of this little-known paradise.
Frank Willems

Mwinilunga District, Zambia

This story starts in 2015 at Cassin’s Camp on the West Lunga River, a birders’ camp in the private Nkwaji Wildlife Reserve. While guiding a birding tour there, late one night Errol de Beer was intrigued by a strange owl’s call. Too deep for an African Wood Owl, it was quite unlike anything he’d heard before. Quickly he pulled out his cell phone and made a recording. No, he hadn’t been dreaming, he really had been listening to a Vermiculated Fishing Owl, until then known only from central Democratic Republic of the Congo and further west.

The presence of the owl in Nkwaji confirmed for us that we knew next to nothing about the upper section of the West Lunga area. Over the years, the few exploratory expeditions into the region had focused on the Ikelenge Pedicle in the extreme north-west, which had previously been incorporated into the Mwinilunga District but is now a district on its own. This area includes well-known sites such as the source of the Zambezi, Hillwood Farm (also known as Nchila Wildlife Reserve) and Chitunta Plain. It also hosts a fairly substantial human population, which is a cause for conservation concern. Subsequent to Errol’s discovery, a Google Earth scan of the Kanyama-Kakoma Pedicle further to the east revealed large expanses of apparently intact grassland and mushitu evergreen forest.

I decided that I should explore this area. Over the course of several years I had long introductory meetings with chiefs and spent many hours figuring out access options and opening up tracks. The rewards have been endless. Almost all the ‘Ikelenge specials’ occur here too, most in fantastic densities. Up to five Vermiculated Fishing Owls have been heard from a single location – and at quite a distance from Cassin’s Camp – so there must be a healthy population. But the biggest reward was the discovery of Spot-breasted Ibises in 2017.

As well as birds, four new reptiles have already been added to Zambia’s list: Dewitte’s five-toed skink, forest file snake, Katanga bush viper and Loveridge’s green snake. The mammal fauna too is fascinating and includes giant otter-shrew, Thomas’s dwarf galago, tree pangolin, hammer-headed bat and brushy-tailed porcupine.

Among the key sites identified is the Kalwelwa Depression, which comprises Zambia’s second-largest rainforest surrounded by amazingly rich swamps and grassland. Not surprisingly, this makes for phenomenal birding, with large populations of most specials, including Grimwood’s Longclaw, Dambo Cisticola, Locustfinch, Angola Lark, Black-collared Bulbul, Bannerman’s Sunbird, Blue Quail and (seasonally) Great Snipe. Vulnerable species such as Wattled Crane, Denham’s Bustard and Southern Ground-Hornbill are also present.

In the Tubama-Nyachisala area, further to the north-east, Zambia’s largest rainforest extends for more than 20 kilometres along the West Lunga River. It is here that the Vermiculated Fishing Owl is common and the calls of Spotbreasted Ibises can be heard as the birds and Bamboo Warblers, among others. The Shining-blue Kingfisher is also particularly common here.

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