Zambia: Kasanka National Park
Country Profiles
Edition 14: Winter 2000/1

Chris McIntyre reveals a hidden gem of a national park in Zambia - small, remote and captivating.
Think of yourself in Zambia. You'll probably imagine a classic game scene in the dry Luangwa or Lower Zambezi, herds of lechwe on the Kafue's Busanga Plains, or relaxing by the great Victoria Falls. You're unlikely to picture yourself standing where I am - in a tree-hide, 20m above the floor of an equatorial forest.

Look hard at a map and you'll find that the tropical forests of central Africa do reach south, into a few of Zambia's hidden corners. Although most Zambian safaris focus on the large, mainly dry parks of the Kafue, Lower Zambezi and Luangwa, there's a gem of a national park in a totally different environment: Kasanka. Glance again at the map, and you'll see that this small reserve is just 30km from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kasanka became a national park in 1942, but was poorly maintained and badly poached. In the mid-1980s, it was about to be de-listed. Then David Lloyd, a former district officer, and Gareth Williams, a local commercial farmer, started a rescue plan with the backing of Chief Chitambo and the local communities. Firstly they put their own money into it. Later they used grants from the European Union. Gradually they took over its administration, making Kasanka Zambia's first privately-funded national park.

Once inside the park, you'll realise that it's flat and covered with marshes, lakes (eight of them) and lush vegetation. Stands of Southern Africa's common miombo woodland are interspersed with taller dry evergreen forests, swamp forests and even permanent papyrus swamps. Wild date palms (Phoenix reclinata) - which help to give the Okavango Delta such a lush, tropical air - are one of the most common tree species here.

Poaching in the 1970s and '80s drastically reduced the number of animals here, but had little impact on the environment. In the last decade, with effective anti-poaching initiatives and community involvement, the game has recovered. "I'm no longer scared of not finding enough animals to satisfy visitors", confided Ed Farmer, who has been managing the park for four years and leading safaris here for ten.

The puku is Kasanka's most common antelope, but spend a few nights here and you'll also spot bushbuck, reedbuck, sable, Lichtenstein's hartebeest, duiker, warthogs, vervet monkeys and baboons. A small herd of elephant, now resident in the park, is gradually appearing more often and hippo are numerous. The smaller carnivores are well represented with caracal, jackal, civet, genet, cape clawless otter and various mongooses. Lion, leopard, serval, spotted hyaena, honey badgers and the African wild cat are seen, but not so often.

Many species typical of the Central African rainforests are found here, like the slender-snouted crocodile and the blue monkey. Neither is common anywhere else in southern Africa. One of the park's highlights is its sitatunga, some of which can almost always be seen from this magnificent tree-hide, perched high in a red mahogany tree overlooking the Kapabi Swamp. This is, with little doubt, the world's best place for viewing these shy antelope in an undisturbed state.

However, climb up to the hide on a late November afternoon, around the time the rains are beginning, and you'll also witness one of Africa's strangest wildlife spectacles. Between about 6.15pm and 6.45pm, some five million straw-coloured fruit bats will take to the air above you.

These large, fruit-eating bats have wingspans of up to about one metre. They start by circling overhead like a vast, slowwhirlwind. Gradually, individuals and groups break off and spread out over the forest in search of forage: wild fruits. For an amazing 20 to 30 minutes the sky is filled, as far as you can see, with squadron upon squadron of bats, heading off into the twilight.

"They come to roost in the evergreen swamp forest, near the Musola River," Ed said, gazing down through the canopy. "It's very unusual vegetation for Zambia - only found near rivers. Tremendously fragile and easily destroyed," he added.

"During the day the bats occupy just a small area. They hang off the Mushitu trees in such numbers that they pull off the branches, leaving just the woody skeletons to hang on to. This lets light onto the forest floor that, together with the inordinate amount of fertiliser that they drop, promotes very rich undergrowth. Imagine: five million bats, weighing about 700g each. That's 3,500 tons of animals." Ed had clearly done his arithmetic before. "The equivalent of a thousand elephants, hanging around in perhaps one hectare of forest, suspended from the trees," he grinned.

Visiting this colony isn't for the faint-hearted though, even during the day. Large crocodiles wander under the trees, far from the nearest water, scavenging for dead bats - along with vultures, gymnogenes (a raptor) and a host of other predators. All of which provided further reasons why that high tree-hide was such a wonderful place to be.Chris McIntyre is a director of a UK tour operator and the author of the Bradt guides to Zambia and Namibia.

Published in Travel Africa Edition Fourteen: Winter 2000/2001 Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)
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