Wetland Creatures of the Zambezi

Please treat the images as copyrighted and do no use them without my permission. Thank you.

The fourth largest river in Africa flows from northwest Zambia and Angola to the Indian Ocean; creating portions of the borders of Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique. Along its 2200 mile run to the sea the Zambezi (also Zambesi) River is held back by two large dams; the Kariba Dam in Zambia and the Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique. In both cases great amounts of hydro-electric power is produced. Also, the level of the river past the dams is regulated by the amount of water allowed to pass through or over the dam(s). In many places the river flows languidly with large shoals of sand and is edged with emergent wetland vegetation. In other places it crashes over great clefts in the substrate creating marvels such as Victoria Falls or running fast through narrow scarps in the ancient lava floor of the region. There are many stretches of narrow these turbulent rocky rapids. The river has a maximum flow in March or April and then diminishes until in October or November the river has lost about 90% of its high-water flowage. March and April are very noisy months at the Victoria Falls and the spray rising from the narrow gorge below the falls often makes viewing and photographing the falls impossible. It truly become “the smoke that thunders” as the Lozi people called it. Locally it is still referred to as Mosi-oa-Tunya.

But in such a variable river there are dozens of animals and plants that live near or in the river and find it a suitable home. Below are a few of the animals most likely to be seen along the river. The images are from Botswana and Zambia for the most part. I will do a couple of blog pages on the Victoria Falls area next – so I am not emphasizing the Falls region here. As a matter of fact some of the images are from Chobe NP which is an area on the Chobe River just above its confluence with the Zambezi. As there is a long overdue bridge being built where Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana come together (a very rare occurrence in political geography) I will also do a page on the new bridge and its profound impact on the area.

Where the river broadens and the flow slows a great deal of silt and sand is dropped from the water. As time passes this will form great marshes and sand islands. There are many islands that have been around long enough to have large trees and termite mounds on them. In many cases the wetlands are shallow and grassy and just right for birds like lapwings, ducks, herons, egrets, storks, and shorebirds. These areas also provide grazing areas for mammals like waterbuck, hippopotamus, puku, red lechwe, African (Cape) buffalo, and impala. Of course wetlands are just right for many reptile forms and certainly Monitor Lizards and Nile Crocodiles are common.
The great Victoria Falls is seen and enjoyed by tourists from near and far. The falls will be featured in the next blog – stay tuned. An afternoon view in August and September will always have rainbows.
Elephants need water every day; lots of water. So it is likely that you will see elephants all along the Zambezi and its tributaries. In many cases it is the usual matriarchal family groups coalescing at the river before climbing back uphill and into the low forest for the night. However a few old males, with their teeth worn down from fifty plus years of grinding sandy vegetation, who will stay close to the river and its wet succulent plants all day and sometimes through the night.
The Zambezi River is simply full of hippos. Small groups scattered along the shore and tucked away in a small bay are so common that you kind of stop looking for them. Their honking laughter echos all day and most of the night whenever you are near the river or when they leave the river and pass by your room/tent/lodge. They leave the shallow water each evening and delicately walk, sometimes for miles, to a grazing area where they eat grass all night.
Nile crocodiles are merely a fact of life for those who live along the river. They are the Great White Sharks of the African rivers. Eating when they need to and loafing most of the time in the warm sun is about all they do. Most of their food is fish but they certainly have no trouble with the occasional large bird or small ungulate. In the national parks they are quite relaxed and allow a close approach by a boat. There are no alligators or caimen in Africa.
In an area where there are lots of buffalo and other grazers it is no surprise to find the ubiquitous cattle egret. You may have noticed one with the elephant in the image above.
Sandpipers, plovers and other “shorebirds” have adapted and evolved to a wide range of habitats. In the US we have the American Woodcock living in damp fields and nesting along the edges of Red maple swamps. There is also Wilson’s Snipe, and the widespread Killdeer that are  “shorebirds” but not usually near the shore. In Africa there is a group of large plovers (now called Lapwings) that have, for the most part, moved into the savannahs and grasslands. But the bird above is the wetland associated African Wattled Lapwing.
fish tiger
In the river there are, of course, fish as you might suspect; a million crocodiles can’t be wrong. The tourist sport fisherman is often looking for the Tiger Fish. This is a fish totally unrelated to the South American piranha, but it also has sharp interlocking teeth and is known to hunt in packs. It is a wild fish to catch and bring to the boat. The fish in the image was released and lived on ready to harass other fish and baby crocs as well.





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