Working for Water: The Bangweulu Wetlands and Africa’s Shoebill…

Zambia’s Bangweulu Wetlands are recognized by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the “Ramsar Convention”) as one of the most important wetlands on earth. This vast, shimmering landscape is home to one of Africa’s most unique residents, the African shoebill (Balaeniceps rex). Shoebills are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN and are threatened by excessive burning by farmers and fishermen, disturbance by boats and fishermen, competition and conflict with artisanal fisheries, and the international wild-caught bird trade. These amazing birds take your imagination into prehistory and draw birders from around the world. A pioneering team of researchers from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town have been in the Bangweulu Wetlands for over two years to formulate strategies for the conservation of this Bangweulu Shoebill population. High-quality empirical research on population size, distribution, local movements, ecology and extinction threats will be used to improve community-based conservation strategies like fisheries management and shoebill tourism development, improving the attitude of the local community towards the species. The “Working for Water” (W4W) Project aims to survey and help protect Africa’s “Big 5” wetlands, the Okavango Delta, Bengweula Swamps, Zambezi Delta, Sudd Swamp and Niger Delta. After a successful unassisted crossing of the Okavango Delta during the 2012 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey, we are ready to take on the length of the Okavango River and the Bangweulu Swamps in the coming years. We need “Ecosystem Ambassadors” like the Slaty Egret in the Okavango Delta and the shoebill in the Bangweulu Wetlands. These flagship species are able to inspire conservation action, raise awareness, and most importantly bring tourists that add value to wildlife and support sustainable livelihoods.


Ralf Mullers
"Kapotwe" is a confiscated shoebill that was hand-raised, taught how to forage, and then allowed to roam free. (Ralf Mullers)
Ralf Mullers
"The Bangweulu Wetland is a vast wetland area with permanent swamps and seasonally-flooded grasslands and floodplains. The system is fed by the Chambeshi, Luapula, Lukulu and Lulimala rivers and consists of floating grasses, papyrus and reeds. Besides the fish and the shoebills, the swamps are home to crocodiles, hippopotamus, sitatunga, and is an internationally important habitat for waterbirds." (Ralf Mullers)
Ralf Mullers
"The vast open floodplains on the periphery of the permanent swamps give the place its name "Bangweulu" – “where the water sky meets the sky”. The Chimbwe plains are an important area for the endemic black lechwe, as it floods during the rainy season and is the spawning grounds for all the important fish species. The shallow waters are particularly nutrient rich because of all the lechwe dung that is deposited here during the year, which fertilizes the waters and creates a rich environment for fish reproduction." (Ralf Mullers)
Ralf Mullers
"Little is known about the distribution of the shoebills throughout the Bangweulu Wetlands. Data from recent aerial surveys should shed light on the preferred habitat of shoebills and their presence in relation to human activities. Preliminary results indicate that shoebills prefer areas with little human presence. The question is whether they avoid humans or whether the swamps there are too impenetrable for people?" (Ralf Mullers)
Rhoda Kachali
"Shoebill team! Many people are involved in the shoebill research project, in many different positions. Here we have a picture with several of the people involved. From left to right: Dr. Ralf Mullers, the principal researcher in the field; Mr. Moses Nyirenda from WWF, a partner in the project; Brighton Mofya, the local research assistant; Dickson Chipulu, the Bangweulu Wetlands shoebill guard; Elijah Mofya, the Community Development Facilitator for the swamp." (Rhoda Kachali)
Ralf Mullers
"After a successful strike... Shoebills forage on top of floating vegetation for catfish. Catfish hide themselves under the floating vegetation during daytime. It is quite oxygen poor underneath the vegetation, so every now and then the catfish have to come to the surface for a mouthful of air. The shoebills are waiting at these breathing holes and will strike when they see a catfish come to the surface. Here, Zorro caught a catfish of almost 50 cm, a substantial meal." (Ralf Mullers)
Ralf Mullers
"Two newly hatched chicks. A shoebill typically lays two eggs that both hatch. One egg will hatch a few days before the other and the first chick is therefore larger than the second chick. Within a week, the second chick will be outcompeted for food by the first chick and it will die. The parents will then rear the one remaining chick until it fledges, which can take up to 95 days. After the chick fledges, it will stay for another few weeks with its parents to learn how to forage." (Ralf Mullers)
Ralf Mullers
"During the foraging observations we made in April and May of 2012, we often saw two shoebills together. On the left we recognise Bwalya, you see the GPS-transmitter on its back. On the right is a bird we called Zorro, thanks to a scar on its forehead in the form of a Z. These two birds often foraged in each other proximity and occasionally they would acknowledge each other and show some social interactions." (Ralf Mullers)


Bangweulu Wetlands Project

The Bangweulu Wetlands Project is the lifeblood of this enigmatic ecosystem in the belly of Africa. Before 2008 this important Ramsar site was in a state of decline with fisheries collapsing, but now there is hope in this remote part of Africa. Their project partners are the Bangweulu Wetlands Management Board, African Parks Network (www.african-parks.org), Kasanka Trust (www.kasanka.com) and WWF Netherlands. Shoebill habitat is being degraded and their eggs are being poached for the illegal wild-caught bird trade. Fishermen are robbing nests and sometimes persecuting shoebills. The research team are just now starting to understand their local movements and devise ways of protecting them more effectively by working with local communities and tourism operators. African Parks (www.african-parks.org) took over management of the Bangweulu Wetlands in partnership with the local communities to protect this unique haven for biodiversity, establishing the Bangweulu Wetland Management Board in August 2008. This board consists of six community representatives, African Parks, and Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA). We need to do everything we can to help African Parks and their partners to develop the Bangweulu Wetlands towards the declaration of new protected areas and renewed growth and investment in ecotourism. It is going to take at least 25 years of hard work to develop a fully-functional conservation landscape around the Bangweulu Wetlands. The current inhabitants are descendants of a series of emigrations from the Congo Basin. The Ba-twa people were the first to occupy the islands around the confluence of the Chambesi and Luapula Rivers hundreds of years ago. They lived a nomadic lifestyle fishing and hunting from temporary shelters built on floating vegetation. Today they have become assimilated into the surrounding tribes building permanent villages, cultivating and speaking the same Bemba language. Human impacts are evident throughout the Bangweulu system with limited enforcement to stop the overfishing and unnecessary burning that happens every year. A growing human population of over 50,000 people depend on this wetland ecosystem and one day soon the perssure will simply be too much and this ecosystem will begin to decline irreparably.


Ralf Mullers
"Fishing camps are common. The Bangweulu Wetlands are an important fishing area in Zambia, and about 50,000 people are directly dependent on the functioning of the natural ecosystem. The annual fish catch in the Bangweulu generates about US$21 million in value for the fishermen. The temporary fishing camps are built deep into the swamps and whole families live in the grass huts. The children often do not go to school and currently only have a future of fishing ahead of them." (Ralf Mullers)
Bangweulu Wetlands / www.african-parks.org
"Children start fishing at a young age to contribute to the family’s fish catch. This boy speared two big catfish. There are many different ways of fishing; fish weirs, hooked lines and nets. Mosquito nets are used to make sure that every sized fish will be caught." (Bangweulu Wetlands / www.african-parks.org)
Ralf Mullers
"From July till November the burning season takes away a lot of the sunlight. People burn the landscape for many different reasons, like farming and poaching, but often it is done for no apparent reason at all. It is tradition to set the landscape on fire, and that is reason enough for most people." (Ralf Mullers)
Ralf Mullers
"When this confiscated and hand-raised shoebill ("Kapotwe") was old enough, Dr Ralf Muller stopped feeding her and opened the doors of her enclosure. In the beginning she did not venture out too far from Chikuni. On the plain directly in front of the research facility, she found an easy way to get her food, emptying the fishing nets set by the local fishermen. However, slowly but surely she started to move away from Chikuni after a few weeks. First from fishing camp to fishing camp, but then she started to move away from people. Eventually she found a good foraging spot near Shoebill Camp, where the tourists can visit her and she is slowly becoming a local celebrity." (Ralf Mullers)
Ralf Mullers
Bwalya. Little is known about the distribution of the shoebills throughout the Bangweulu Wetlands. Data from recent aerial surveys should shed a light on the favourite habitat of the shoebills and their presence in relation to human activities. Preliminary results indicate that shoebills prefer areas with little human presence. The question is whether they avoid humans or whether the swamps there are too impenetrable for people. (Ralf Mullers)


One of Africa’s most important wetlands

The Great Bangweulu Basin includes the vast, shimmering Lake Bangweulu and associated wetlands are located in a shallow depression in the center of an ancient cratonic platform, the North Zambian Plateau. Amazingly, 17 large rivers feed the basin from a catchment area of over 190,000 km2. After passing through the swamp system the water is drained by just the Luapula River, which disappears into the tropical forests. In the Bangweulu Swamps there are no single clear channels connecting the rivers and the lake system, but rather a multitude of narrow shifting channels, lagoons and floodplains that require skill top navigate. The explorer David Livingstone died exploring the vast area, and one of his last acts was to question Chief Chitambo about the course of the Luapula River… His grave stands under a special tree in the village today. During the wet season (November – March) the Great Bangweulu Basin receives average annual rainfall of over 1200mm (almost 50 inches), thus flooding the entire system. With over 90% of the floodwaters entering the system being lost via evapo-transpiration from exposed vegetation, the water levels in the middle of the shallow basin vary by up to 2m. Astonishingly this results in the floodline advancing and retreating up to 45km at the periphery. This seasonal rise and fall of the annual floodwaters dictates life in the swamps… These fertile floodplains are blanketed by up to 1m of water for up to 6 months of the year, providing ideal feeding grounds for innumerable waterbirds, including many important summer migrants that have flown across Africa to spend the winter months languishing in the Bangweulu Swamps. Great white pelicans, the Endangered wattled cranes, saddle-billed storks, spoonbills, egrets, herons, ducks, cormorants, geese, pygmy geese, ibises and many, many different waders flock in their hundreds and sometimes thousands. The abundance of life is a primordial and dramatic sight to behold when the waters the swamps are rich in small fish, shrimps, and snails during the receding floods. The near-endemic black lechwe dominate the landscape with a population of over 75,000 that migrates across the Great Bangweulu Basin. There are no big cats left in the area due to being hunted out by established human populations. Only hyena are seen actively hunting them at night. Elephant, buffalo, tsessebe, reedbuck, Burchell’s zebra, oribi and sitatunga are amongst other species found in the Bangweulu Wetlands. The vast open floodplains on the periphery of the permanent swamps give the place its name Bangweulu – “where the water sky meets the sky”. It is hard to separate sky from reflection on a still day standing on a mokoro in a vast, open floodplain…


Ralf Mullers
"Before the mating season, males often chase each other or fight with their horns to establish a territory. Black lechwe males defend their territory and will mate with receptive females that enter their territory. Bachelor groups are often seen at the edges of territories, hoping for a mating chance themselves. Females give birth to calves in the swamps, where they are safe from predators." (Ralf Mullers)
Bangweulu Wetlands / www.african-parks.org
"Black lechwe are a critical element in the Bangweulu ecosystem. They play a key role in nutrient cycling and are a key prey species for predators. It is thought that they create and maintain the short grass habitat so important for fish breeding in this flooded grassland habitat." (Bangweulu Wetlands / www.african-parks.org)
Lorenz Fischer
The Bangweulu Wetlands Management Board is responsible for the law enforcement in the park. The wetlands are constantly patrolled by ZAWA and village scouts. In 2011, 115 poachers were arrested, up from 75 in the year before. The main meat that is being poached is black lechwe. (Lorenz Fischer)
Ralf Mullers
"Poachers are often locals from the villages surrounding the plains where the black lechwe occur. The shooting of lechwe mostly happens at night, so the scouts patrol during the dark hours . The guns the poachers use are homemade muzzle loaders." (Ralf Mullers)
Ralf Mullers
"Poaching is a problem in the Bangweulu Wetlands GMA, like in any other park. The GMA is the only place in the world where black lechwe can be seen. This endemic species occurs in high numbers in the park, the latest estimates are 75.000, but also lives close to human settlements. During this particular arrest, 19 carcasses were found with the poachers. All the meat has to be weighed and brought to court." (Ralf Mullers)
Ralf Mullers
"Sunrise during the rainy season can be spectacular. Early in the morning the black lechwe leave the swamps and walk onto the plain in their tens of thousands. During the day they spend their time foraging going back into the swamps again at night. They spend their nights in the swamps for protection against predators such as hyenas." (Ralf Mullers)

Go to this link for more information on how to support the Bangweulu Wetlands Project: DONATE


Please support the work of African Parks and he Percy FitzPatrick Institute by sharing this blog with your friends and colleagues. Africa is changing rapidly. Substantial investment is coming in from emerging powers like China, Brazil and India. Mineral rights are being sold, gas and oil exploration is underway, dams and hydro-electric schemes are being built, road networks are expanding, and water is becoming more and more scarce due to population growth and climate change. We need to ensure that the world understands the importance of the services provided by wetland ecosystems before they disappear. The time to act is now. In April 2014, Bush Boyes Expeditions (www.facebook.com/bushboyes) and Wild Bird Trust will be conducting a wetland bird survey across the Bangweulu Wetlands to support the shoebill research project and survey the distribution, abundance and habitat associations of wetland birds. This 14-day expedition on dug-out canoes aims to access remote areas in the center of the swamp to determine whether shoebill concentrate seasonally in these areas to avoid disturbance by local fishermen. The 2014 Bangweulu Wetlands Expedition follows on from the 2013 Okavango River Expedition (www.okavangofilm.com), as part of the Working for Water (W4W) Project, which aims to survey and help protect Africa’s “Big 5” wetlands, the Okavango Delta, Bengweula Swamps, Zambezi Delta, Sudd Swamp and Niger Delta. Myself and my brother, Chris, will to pole dug-out canoes across each of these vast wetlands along with local “polers”. Our dug-outs will be completely self-sufficient and the expeditions are unassisted. Many years of practice in the Okavango Delta have prepared us for this three-year mission to explore, showcase and protect five of Africa’s great places, five of Africa’s most valuable ecosystems…

W4W Mission Statement:

Working for Water is an exploration, research and community conservation project that aims to survey and protect some of Africa’s last remaining wilderness areas. The expedition team will do this by “poling” dug-out canoes across each of Africa’s largest swamps and deltas to survey wildlife and habitat quality along the transect route. Each expedition will support long-term community conservation projects and ecotourism development in partnered communities that have heritage rights to these important wetlands. These ancient African swamps and deltas all have the potential to yield large oil and gas reserves. Exploration is underway and we will need to choose pure water or oil revenue, world-class natural heritage or despoiled dumping grounds. We need to care about this, because once these sensitive ecosystems collapse they have lost forever. The Okavango Delta, Bengweula Swamps, Zambezi Delta, Sudd Swamp and Niger Delta are among the largest in the world, exceeding the size of small countries.  These wetland ecosystems purify the rivers and the water that people drink, as well as support regional biodiversity and the migrations of millions of animals. They are reservoirs of life that support huge numbers of birds and animals during the dry season – images from prehistory still intact due to civil war and inaccessibility. Working for Water will stimulate positive change for Africa’s “Big Five” deltas by lobbying for World Heritage Status, new protected areas and Trans-frontier Conservation Areas with national government, as well as interacting with local communities to find out what they need, and getting the necessary baseline biodiversity assessments completed. We can envisage the future we want for the deltas based on the richness we can still witness now, and gathering and telling sharing the lives and aspirations of the local people that depend on these ecosystems to the world.

To prove to the world that our presence in these ecosystems can be sustainable and that the lifestyles of local communities must be hailed as an example to us all, all five expeditions will be run on solar power and the expedition teams will live as close to the land as possible. By living like the locals, using the same means of transport, and having no ecological footprint on our expeditions, each expedition will showcase the sustainable lifestyles of the local communities that live in and depend on these wetland ecosystems. Local communities will be involved in all expeditions and the community conservation projects that support sustainable livelihoods and heritage rights to the land, and which will help protect these systems in perpetuity. As the saying goes: every river has its people… and untold stories. We are going there to find these people and share their stories through local translators in their home language and the shared experience of surviving through both strenuous and life-threatening situations on our way to discovering a way to protect these globally important wetlands.

Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.
  • Vernon Baillie

    Great to read that there are people out there that believe that this incredible area can be saved from its decline, which has been happening over many years,I once believed it was only a matter of time before people would populate and deplete all the natural resources,

  • Elijah Mofya

    I agree all the above information, and the matter of the fact is that Bangweulu wetlands is very big which occurs in six (6) chiefdom’s. It contains many species of animals and birds.
    You are welcome to read the above information.

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