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Zambia’s endemic lechwe

Zambia’s endemic lechwe

Kafue Lechwe
Kafue Lechwe
Fico Vidal

Zambezi Traveller introduced Livingstone’s Lechwe in the last issue – the southern or red lechwe, Kobus leche, which Dr David Livingstone was one of the first to describe to science when he discovered Lake Ngami in modern day Botswana. When he eventually crossed the Zambezi and travelled north into what was then Barotseland (now Western Zambia) Livingstone encountered another subspecies of lechwe, the Kafue lechwe (K. l. kafuensis).

The Kafue lechwe is one of two subspecies of lechwe endemic to Zambia. The other, the black lechwe (K. l. smithemani), occurs in the Bangweulu Swamps of the Congo basin.

The Kafue lechwe is largely restricted to protected areas within the Kafue Flats, occurring in the Lochinvar (410 km2) and Blue Lagoon (420 km2) National Parks and the Kafue Flats Game Management Area (5,175 km2). The National Parks are also listed jointly as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, and are managed exclusively for conservation, while the Kafue Flats Game Management Area is also managed for sport hunting.

The Kafue or brown lechwe, which can be distinguished from the southern or red lechwe by the increased amount of black on the front legs, has been identified as vulnerable to extinction by conservationists. From an estimated population of 350,000 in the early 1900s, by the early 1970s the population had been reduced to around 100,000.

Lechwe are highly dependent on the specialised wetland habitats for which they are adapted, and have been eliminated from much of their former ranges as wetlands have been drained, regulated or otherwise influenced by man’s activities. Water flow on the Kafue floodplain has been regulated almost entirely for human needs since the construction of the Kafue Gorge and Itezhi-tezhi hydroelectric dams in the 1970s.

The regulation of water flow has altered flow regimes, causing a loss of temporary flooded wetlands and reducing overall habitat availability. Other factors affecting Kafue’s lechwe population include traditional hunting, poaching and cattle grazing pressure.

By the early 1980s, following completion of the two dam projects, the population had declined to a minimum of perhaps only 40,000, but has since slowly recovered in response to conservation and community efforts and is currently estimated to be around 75,000.

The long-term survival of all lechwe subspecies in the wild depends on the effective protection and management of their wetland habitats, inside and outside of protected areas. Rainfall permitting, management of the Kafue hydro-electric stations is controlled to partially simulate the annual floods, although within restricted parameters.

Revenue generation through controlled offtake by sport hunting, and the development of sustainable harvesting to provide meat for local markets, have also been identified as methods of giving the species an economic value and thus creating an incentive for community-based conservation initiatives outside of protected areas.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 12, March 2013)

Other related articles from previous issues:
Livingstone's Lechwe

Read more about the region in our destination guide:

IUCN Red List (external link, opens in a new window)