World’s only Kafue Lechwe, declining at an alarming rate. | WWF Zambia

World’s only Kafue Lechwe, declining at an alarming rate.

Posted on
25 February 2019
A recent population count by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife with support from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Crane Foundation (ICF) has shown evidence of continued decline of the endemic Kafue Lechwe – a semi-aquatic antelope species found only in the Kafue Flats of Zambia and nowhere else in the world. The Kafue Lechwe population currently stands at approximately 23,306, the lowest ever recorded for the Kafue Flats, down from historical high population counts that exceeded 100,000 in the 1970s and 250,000 in the 1930s. The last survey, conducted in 2015 estimated a population of 28,711 – suggesting a 19% decline in 5 years.

The decline in the Kafue Lechwe population is attributed to a number of factors. These include habitat degradation and loss, invasive species encroachment, poaching (illegal off-take), unsustainable hunting quotas, competition with cattle as well as disease and nutritional stress. Of these, the most concerning are poaching and the spread of the invasive species resulting in reduction of suitable habitat.   

Poaching has significantly contributed to the decline of the Kafue Lechwe population. The proximity of human settlements to herds of Kafue Lechwe makes the lechwe vulnerable to poaching. Lechwe are increasingly concentrated in Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon National Parks, having abandoned much of their larger historical range across the GMA as a result of substantial human encroachment in the Kafue Flats. The edges of Blue Lagoon and Lochinvar NP and the surrounding Kafue Flats Game Management Area (GMA) have been heavily settled. Cattle posts and fishing villages are widespread on the floodplain and along watercourses and continue to expand in size and number encroaching onto the core habitat for Kafue Lechwe. There is need to address the broader management plan for the Kafue Flats and interrogate the settling and building of permanent fishing villages and improve resource protection of the Kafue Flats.

The Kafue Flats have experienced significant encroachment of the invasive shrub, Mimosa pigra (commonly known as the Giant Sensitive Tree or “Mimosa”), especially in the termitaria and floodplain grasslands over the last four decades. These changes are attributed to the changes in the flooding regime brought about by the construction of hydroelectric dams both at Itezhi-Tezhi and Kafue gorge in the 1970s. Studies have shown that that the encroachment of these shrubs have reduced suitable grazing areas for the Kafue Lechwe, adversely affecting their food supply and possibly limiting the population numbers and distribution of the species. Mimosa thickets have also affected access routes for the Kafue Lechwe, making them more vulnerable to poaching. Habitat restoration by way of controlling the spread of this invasive shrub is a matter of urgency. The implementation of environmental flows is also essential in restoring of the integrity of the wetland. 

WWF Zambia, together with the International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust (ICF/EWT) Partnership and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) are working to control the spread of Mimosa pigra and restore the Kafue Flats wetland. This project is a large-scale, highly intensive control effort with substantial community involvement that is aimed at reducing the area of cover of Mimosa to less than 5% of the current known cover (approx. 3000 hectares) and is also focused specifically on ensuring that the DNPW has the capacity and commitment to the long-term monitoring and small-scale Mimosa eradication efforts needed to retain project gains. The project has generated employment opportunities for at least 150 people from surrounding local communities who have been engaged to remove Mimosa within Lochinvar National Park. Approximately 680 hectares of Mimosa within Lochinvar National Park, has been cleared so far.  In addition to this, the International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust (ICF/EWT) Partnership together with WWF Zambia and other partners is supporting a government led initiative to declare a national emergency to save the Kafue Lechwe and secure the ecological health of the Kafue Flats.

The Kafue Flats landscape does not exist in isolation and it is part of the broader lower Kafue sub-catchment. The Water Resources Management Authority with support from cooperating partners is in the process of finalizing a Catchment Management Plan that will include the Flats. The Management Plan is envisioned to guide management of water resources in the area ensuring equitable distribution for people and nature. Alongside this, WWF Zambia and partners are in the process of developing a Basin Health Report Card (BHRC) for the Lower Kafue Sub-basin.

The report card will provide a platform where information about the health of the basin can be synthesized and shared with the general public whilst helping guide management decisions. This is the first time this tool will be used on the African continent and we expect it will provide a mechanism for government institutions and other partners to effectively monitor and manage freshwater landscapes, like the Kafue Flats, in an integrated way, instead of only within the scope of their own mandate.