Zambia has always been classed as an excellent general bag area and in that way little has changed. As predicted the seasons of 2003 and 2004 have proven that Zambia offers some of the finest free-range hunting in Africa today.
Hunting resumed in 2003 after a two-year Presidential ban. The subsequent tender process resulted in a fair and transparent granting of concessions, many to newly established Zambian safari operators. The hunting concessions (Game Management Areas, or GMAs) controlled by the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) are now governed by stringent conditions designed to protect the hunting grounds and to provide financial support for the resident communities.
It was widely predicted that this period of inactivity would spell the end of the game in Zambia. This did not turn out to be the case, and while some unprotected hunting blocks suffered the ravages of poaching, the quality and quantity of game animals in most hunting blocks has remained very much the same - and in a few cases it has actually improved in 2003. The areas that did suffer were the adjacent national parks, and there we are seeing a marked decrease in wildlife populations. To a certain extent, this did affect hunting in some areas in 2004, but generally the hunting in Zambia has been very good.
Game animals are tenacious and the hunting areas are vast. The safari operators are progressive and the wildlife authority is still interested. Zambia has all the ingredients to become Africa's finest safari-hunting destination.
While some GMAs have seen a decline in certain species, the lion and leopard populations have increased throughout the country. Large hairy lion have been taken almost everywhere with almost monotonous frequency, and subsequently some operators have been booked solid for the next two years. This year Zambia produced the best lion, leopard and bushbuck ever recorded in this country and a new world record lion in the bow hunting category. Other much sought-after species such as roan, sable, Lichtenstein's hartebeest, defassa waterbuck and puku are still common, and the trophy quality is excellent. Unique species such as black lechwe, Kafue lechwe and Cookson's wildebeest are plentiful, and the lesser game species are abundant in most regions. The rarer sitatunga, yellow-backed duiker and blue duiker are still available, but only in select areas. Hunting of elephants is apparently going to resume in 2005, but this is still a controversial issue, amongst certain circles, and a final decision has yet to be announced. I believe that a limited quota could be set in some of the better concessions, but for the most part, poachers have decimated the elephant populations or the trophy quality is poor.
On the down side, 2004 witnessed the hunting ban of our unique Kafue lechwe due to an outbreak of disease in the Kafue Flats and this ban may continue into 2005. The poaching and village encroachment in the Bangweulu swamps has been disastrous for the sitatunga and very few were taken this year. Whilst in previous years there was a 40% chance of securing a good trophy, this year this statistic must have plummeted to as low as 20%.
The Zambian Wildlife Authority has recently advertised an in-house tender of these two important areas to the general public EXCLUDING the existing safari operators. This again has been very contentious and is being challenged by the Safari Hunting Operators Association of Zambia (SHOWAZ). Our wildlife authority has also chosen to demarcate certain GMAs for subdivision and have indicated that parallel quotas will be offered to each of the new GMAs.
Zambia has 19 national parks (NPs) and 36 Game Management Areas. Collectively, they cover 23 million hectares or about 30 per cent of the country (eight per cent and 22 per cent respectively). The parks and GMAs include a variety of habitats with most big game species. They were created to protect the full range of the country's wildlife and natural resources, and provide for maintenance of vital ecological systems, recreational enjoyment, research, and sustainable non-consumptive use of these resources for economic purposes. Hunting in the parks is normally not allowed except for game-management purposes. However, the parks function as game reservoirs for surrounding areas through the natural movement of animals from areas of high density into areas of low density.
Game Management Areas generally lie in tribal or traditional lands contiguous with the parks. They are designed to serve as buffer areas between the parks and settled land; unlike the parks, however, GMAs allow sustainable consumptive utilization of wildlife, mainly through commercial safari hunting.
Under Zambia's new wildlife policy, local communities are responsible for the management of GMAs, regulated and supervised by ZAWA. The main economic benefit arising from wildlife management of the GMAs is revenue from fees for commercial safari hunting.
Safari hunting for trophies is done by international clients, conducted by safari outfitters in the designated hunting blocks. Classic or deluxe safaris are full-bag hunts and may include such highly valued trophies as lion, leopard, roan antelope and sable; the hunter may purchase licences for as many species as are on the quota for a given hunting period and area. A mini-safari limits the hunter to no more than seven animals of different species in a given hunting area, and roan, sable, leopard, and lion are not available on these safaris.
Most GMAs are between 3,000 and 6,000 square kilometres, although the largest are more than 10,000 square kilometres. Game ranches and game farms attract a lot of interest and offer old-style hospitality, not to mention an amazing array of species. Excellent wing shooting is available at these private establishments and the birds are managed for sporting purposes.
In 2002 ZAWA leased the concession hunting rights to Zambian-registered safari hunting operators for a period of 10 years; these operators are responsible for both managing the GMAs and protecting the interests of the resident communities. The lease can be withdrawn if the wildlife department or the community feel the operator is not abiding by the lease agreements. Our hunting season is the dry season and extends from May 1 to December 31; June, July, and August are the most congenial months for hunting. The days are mild and the mornings are invigorating; in fact, they can be bloody cold! In most areas, commercial meat poaching is a problem, and combating poaching is jointly the responsibility of the wildlife authority and the safari operators.
I will look first at some of the geographical hunting areas of Zambia, then at the prospects for individual major species.
In the eastern regions, the Luangwa Valley has long been acknowledged as one of Africa's finest hunting grounds and the adjoining national parks are home to some of the greatest concentrations of game animals found on the continent. The valley is the tail end of the Great Rift Valley that divides east Africa, and the Luangwa River is a thousand feet below the central plateau, bordered by the impressive Muchinga escarpments. The vegetation is classic open savanna and mopane woodland. The riverbanks are shaded by stands of acacia, ebony, and mahogany. Some of the larger antelope species, such as roan and sable, are absent or occur only in small numbers, but lion, leopard, and buffalo are the main trophy species and are found in good numbers. The Cookson's wildebeest is unique to the valley and is found only in some of the concessions. Generally, the prime areas offer the best hunting and amenities but some of the secondary hunting blocks have also produced excellent results and are verging on prime status. Hunting here usually winds up in November when the first rains come.
The Kafue River basin is a vast region and the number and diversity of game reflect the size and variety of landscape. A section of Zambia's high plateau, this land varies between a 1000 and 1500 meters above sea level and supports several distinct ecosystems; there are riverine forests, miombo and mopane woodland, teak forests and savanna, as well as wetland areas known as dambos, which drain into the river. While the game is increasing in some of the well-managed GMAs, Kafue National Park has a very serious poaching problem and it remains to be seen if the game can hold its own there. However, the donor community have pledged many millions of dollars to be spent on wildlife assignments in this area and it is encouraging to see that some projects are being implemented now. The buffalo population has declined in the past few years, but lion and leopard are common and trophy quality is the best it has ever been. Here one can hunt record-book sable, roan, hartebeest, defassa waterbuck, puku, and oribi as the main antelope species, and a variety of rarities such as sitatunga, yellow-backed duiker, and blue duiker. Lesser game can be found in healthy concentrations, and with the exception of impala the trophy quality is first rate.
In western Zambia, hunting conditions are best after the grass has been burnt at the end of June, although hunting for the big cats is done mainly at the beginning of the season and bookings for this period are much sought after. Because of the higher altitude, the Kafue region is cooler and the mornings can be frosty in the winter months.
Previously the wetland areas of Bangweulu and the Kafue Flats have been operated by ZAWA as 'pool areas' with all local safari operators entitled to hunt there. These areas have now been put out to tender and the results have yet to be announced. The legalities of this action are unclear. It was interesting to note that the existing bona fide safari operators were astonished to find that they were not eligible for the tender.
These extensive, partly inundated plains support large numbers of Lechwe, Africa's largest wetland antelope. The Kafue flats is a vast, level flood plain - mainly featureless but awesome nevertheless. It is possible here to be in territory where one can see nothing but the slight curvature of the grassy horizon. The Kafue River divides the flats from west to east; the north bank is known as Blue Lagoon and the south is Lochinvar. Both areas are easily accessible from Lusaka and hunting can be completed in a day. However, fly camps are preferred, offering the hunter more time to explore and hunt this fascinating animal. While not as beautifully marked as the black lechwe, Kafue lechwe heads are much more impressive, at 30 inches and more, and it is a handsome trophy. They gather in large herds and can smother the horizon for as far as one can see. Shooting sticks are essential and due to the terrain ranges can be more than two hundred meters.
Burchell's zebra are also common on the flood plains during the hotter months and are available on license.
The Bangweulu swamps are famous for their black lechwe, antelope graced with long, lyre-shaped horns that concentrate in herds of 1,000 or more on the expanse of grassy floodplains surrounding the swamps. Hunting is principally conducted along the southern boundary of the swamps at Chikuni. While the black lechwe is smaller than the Kafue, it has more striking markings and makes a very handsome mount. Actually, "black" is a misnomer: the animals are more of a dark brown and only older specimens develop some black on their flanks and necks. The Kafue and black lechwe are unique to Zambia, and the possibility of record-class trophies is very good. Black lechwe heads of 26 inches are quite common although 24 inches is the norm.
Sitatunga of the Zambezi race are no longer numerous in the swamps and hunting them can be an adventure. Muddy watercourses and lagoons must be crossed in dugout canoes and much patience is needed to secure a good specimen. Shooting is usually done from a series of raised blinds constructed from poles and papyrus, strategically placed to offer the hunter the best possible chance. 'Chance' is a word that is used often in these wetlands and long shots are often called for. I have not heard of any trophy more than 30 inches being taken in the previous two years; in the past, horns have averaged around 25 inches.
Other species such as tsessebe, oribi, and reedbuck are available on a restricted quota and have remained fairly common. Poaching is rampant here and human encroachment is unchecked. This important habitat will need some serious attention in the near future.
Lions are a major safari attraction, and last year I predicted that Zambia would produce some really magnificent specimens. The last two years have seen very high scoring cats come out of most regions. The Zambian records for both lion and leopard have been smashed. The new world record lion (bow hunting category) was taken at the beginning of this season in the Kafue. Many professional hunters I have spoken to have had excellent success with these beasts and the trophy quality has been first class.
Lions occur in every major hunting area and many kinds of habitat, but generally grow less impressive manes in forested areas than they do in open country. Black-maned lions (not pure black) are relatively common and frequently taken. Although lion may be hunted in various ways, the usual method (as with leopard) is to bait them with hippo or buffalo meat and shoot from a blind. This method has proven very successful and by law can only be done during the hours of daylight. Tracking is not really an option because of the terrain and ground conditions. Tracking is a learned art and there are very few individuals, and none that I know of, who can track a cat under difficult conditions.
Leopards are found almost everywhere and can be attracted to bait fairly easily under conditions similar to lion. In the past our leopards rarely compared with the massive cats that came out of Zimbabwe, but leopards larger than eight feet have been taken this year. It would seem that the quality of this species is improving as well.
Cape buffalo historically have been one of Zambia's most sought-after dangerous game animals, but the large populations of buffalo that once roamed the country are declining, and in some of the Kafue regions the situation is desperate. The Luangwa and Lower Zambezi valleys still boast good numbers, however, and trophies of 42 inches or better are taken there. However, a heavily bossed Zambian buffalo with a 38-inch spread is considered worth a shot. The current Safari Club International No. 1 buffalo was taken in North Kafue shortly before the hunting ban, and professional hunters are still reporting the odd massive trophy throughout the country.
With the exception of the Luangwa, where buffalo are common, these animals are usually spoored or spooked early in the morning near water and tracked to the area where they lie up during the day.
Zambia has the finest sable antelope of the typical race left on the continent. The Kafue is their home and huge specimens are taken every year. While most that I have seen this year are around 43 inches, there has been a surprising number taken that were more than 45 inches long. A sable with 52-inch horns was taken in one of the north Kafue blocks shortly before the hunting ban and last year one of 49 inches was taken in one of the southern blocks. Sable rarely occur in the hotter valleys of southern and eastern Zambia and one would need to hunt a Kafue block or game farm. This is one animal that has never decreased in quality or quantity in this country, and this magnificent trophy alone would merit a safari to Zambia.
Roan are nomadic and occur in a wide variety of habitats throughout the country, but nowhere are they common. Not long ago, this important game animal was widespread, but this is no longer true, although there are reliable reports of good numbers of roan in the rugged hill country in south Luangwa and areas of the Kafue. Tondwa GMA, bordering Lake Tanganyika, also has some very fine specimens. Roan tend not to do well on game farms or in other restricted areas.
Livingstone's eland are quite common, but more so in the cooler environs of the Kafue, since these animals prefer open woodland and large grassy plains. Eland are notoriously difficult to hunt and are blessed with sharp senses. Ordinarily, they are hunted by stalking or tracking. Later in the year the bulls separate from the herds and are often easier to shoot then. Any trophy larger than 35 inches is good, and the best I have seen in recent years was one of 42 inches taken in south Kafue. This is one animal that does very well on game farms or other conservancies.
Greater kudu of the large southern race are found in many areas and 50-inch horns should be the minimum. Historically, the best heads (and many larger than 60 inches) have come from the broken foothills of the Zambezi and Luangwa rivers in central Zambia. In hill country, kudu can be glassed and stalked but in the lowlands one must walk or gently drive through the right habitat. Kudu are so often shot while hunting other species. Trophy quality here seems to be improving.
Lichtenstein's hartebeest, defassa waterbuck and puku dominate the list of most sought-after plains game. Hartebeest and the defassa or Crawshay's waterbuck are found mainly in the Kafue hunting blocks, although the latter species has a much more restricted range. All the finest trophies have come from Zambia and, although the quality is not what it used to be, it is still very good and will certainly improve with management. Puku are common in most of the Kafue and Luangwa concessions but are found nowhere else. Exceptional puku of 19 inches or more are not uncommon. Oribi and common reedbuck are quite common; the oribi are extremely high quality but do not occur in the Luangwa.