Zambia’s population is made up of between 70 and 80 different ethnic groups (the final count varies according to your definition of ethnicity, but the Zambian government officially recognises 73 groups). Despite these numbers there is considerable homogeneity among the tribes of Zambia. This is partly due to a long history of people moving around the country, settling new areas or looking for work, and also because after independence President Kaunda fostered national unity, while still recognising the disparate languages and cultures. Intermarriage among the officially recognised groups is also common. Hence Zambia is justifiably proud of its relative lack of ethnic problems, and its official motto on the coat of arms reads: ‘One Zambia, One Nation’.
The vast majority (99%) of Zambians are indigenous Africans. The final 1% are Zambian citizens of Indian or European origin (mostly involved in business, commerce, farming and the tourist industry). Many white and Asian families have lived here for generations – although race relations are still sometimes a little strained.
The Bemba, whose traditional homeland is in northern Zambia around Kasama and Lake Bangweulu, are the largest ethnic group in Zambia, forming about 20% of the population. Many also live in the Copperbelt, having migrated for work, and Bemba is now the dominant language there.
All together, speakers of Tonga as a first language make up about 15% of Zambia’s population. Once primarily hunters, most Tonga are now farmers and cattle herders, while those who live along the rivers catch fish. The traditional homelands of the Tonga are the Zambezi Valley and much of the higher country to the north, thus dividing them into two groups: Valley Tonga and Plateau Tonga. The former’s territory once spread into Zimbabwe, but largely disappeared when Lake Kariba was formed.
People speaking Nyanja as a first language make up about 15% of the total population (the term Nyanja is used more to describe a language than a particular people); the Chewa people make up about a third of the Nyanja-speakers in Zambia. The Ngoni, descendants of Zulus who migrated here in the early 19th century, make up about 6% and live in southeast Zambia around the town of Chipata. They still maintain some Zulu traditions but have adopted Nyanja as their language. In the southeast, the Nsenga people, who also speak Nyanja, inhabit the lands around the town of Petauke, along the lower Luangwa River and along the Great East Rd, making up about 5% of the population.
The Lozi have their own distinct nation called Barotseland, a significant part of Zambia’s Western Province and the vast Zambezi flood plain, and with about 650,000 people, they make up roughly 6% of the population. The annual inundations provide good soil for crops and good grass for cows, so naturally the Lozi are farmers and herders, although when the flood plain is covered in water, they often have to move to villages on higher ground.
Landlocked Zambia is one of Africa’s most eccentric legacies of colonialism. Shaped like a mangled butterfly, its borders don’t correspond to any tribal or linguistic area. And Zambia is huge. At some 752,000 sq km, it’s about the size of France, England and the Republic of Ireland combined.
Zambia is chock full of rivers. The Luangwa, the Kafue and the mighty Zambezi dominate western, southern and eastern Zambia, flowing through a beautiful mix of flood plains, forests and farmland. In the north, the main rivers are the Chambeshi and the Luapula, both sources of the Congo River. Northern Zambia has many smaller rivers, too, and the broken landscape helps create a stunning scenery of lakes, rapids and waterfalls.
Of course, Zambia’s most famous waterfall is Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi River plunges over a mile-wide cliff before thundering down the long, zigzagging Batoka Gorge. The Zambezi flows into Lake Kariba, created by a dam but still one of the largest lakes in Africa. In northern Zambia is the even larger Lake Tanganyika – it’s 675km long, the second deepest in the world, and holds roughly one-sixth of the earth’s fresh water.
In the south and east, Zambia is cut by deep valleys, some of of which are branches of the Great Rift Valley. The Zambezi Valley is the largest, and defines the county’s southern border, while the 700km-long Luangwa Valley is lined by the steep and spectacular Muchinga Escarpment.
Even the flats of Zambia can be stunning: the endless grassy Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park attract fantastic wildlife, while the Liuwa Plain – part of the even larger Upper Zambezi flood plain that makes up much of western Zambia – is home to Africa’s second-largest wildebeest migration.
Some of Zambia’s other geographical highlights include the breathtaking high, rolling grasslands of the Nyika Plateau, the seasonally flooded wetlands of the Kafue Flats, the teak forests of the Upper Zambezi, and the Kariba and Mpata Gorges on the Lower Zambezi.
Because of Zambia’s diverse landscape, plentiful water supplies, and position between Eastern, Southern and Central Africa, the diversity of animal species is huge. The rivers, of course, support large populations of hippos (at around 40,000, the Zambezi River has Africa’s highest population) and crocs, and the associated grasslands provide plenty of fodder for herds of zebras, impalas and pukus (an antelope common in Zambia, but not elsewhere). Although the tiger fish of the Zambezi are related to the South American piranha, there’s no record of a human being attacked (however, they are attracted to blood in the water).
Huge herds of rare black lechwe live near Lake Bangweulu, and endemic Kafue lechwe settle in the area around the Kafue River. Kasanka National Park is one of the best places on the continent to see the rare, water-loving antelopes called sitatungas. South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks are good places to see tall and stunningly graceful giraffes, and Zambia has its own subspecies – Thornicroft’s giraffe. South Luangwa has its very own subspecies of wildebeest, too – the light-coloured Cookson’s wildebeest – but the best place to see these creatures is the Liuwa Plain, a remote grassland area in western Zambia where thousands converge every year for Africa’s second-largest wildebeest migration.
These animals naturally attract predators, so most parks contain lions, leopards, hyenas (which you’ll probably see) and cheetahs (which you probably won’t). Wild dogs were once very rare but are now encountered more frequently. Elephants, another big drawcard, are also found in huge herds in South Luangwa, Lower Zambezi and some other national parks. Zambia’s herds of black rhino were killed by poachers in the 1970s and ’80s, but reintroduction programs have seen rhino transported to North Luangwa National Park.
Bird lovers will love Zambia, where about 750 species have been recorded. Twitchers used to the ‘traditional’ Southern African species listed in the Roberts and Newman’s field guides will spend a lot of time identifying unusual species – especially in the north and west. Most notable are the endangered shoebill storks (found in the Bangweulu Wetlands); fish eagles (Zambia’s national bird); and the endemic Chaplin’s barbets (found mostly around Monze). Here’s one time when you might groan at biological diversity: there are 37 different species of tsetse flies in Kafue National Park. Chewing garlic cloves is said to help keep them away, but heavy-duty insect repellent containing DEET is more effective.
About 65% of Zambia, mainly plateau areas and escarpments, is covered in miombo woodland, which consists mainly of broad-leaved deciduous trees, particularly various species of Brachystegia (another name for this type of vegetation is Brachystegia woodland). Some areas are thickly wooded, others are more open, but the trees never form a continuous canopy, allowing grass and other plants to grow between them. In the drier, hotter valleys and best-known national parks like South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi, much of the vegetation is mopane woodland. Dominant trees are the species Colophospermum mopane, usually around 10m high. The baobab tree also grows here. Many legends and stories are associated with the striking and simultaneously grand and grotesque tree. One has it that the gods, upset over the baobabs haughty disdain for inferior-looking flora, thrust them back into the ground, roots upward, to teach them a lesson in humility. You’ll see this landscape in Zambia’s best-known national parks, Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa. Zambia has some of the most extensive wetlands in Southern Africa. These include the Bangweulu Wetlands, along the southern and eastern shores of Lake Bangweulu; and the vast plains of the Kafue Flats downstream from Kafue National Park, which is dotted with seasonally flooded marshes, lagoons and oxbow lakes.
Most grassland in Zambia is low, flat and flooded for part of the year, with hardly a tree in sight. The largest flood-plain area is west of the Upper Zambezi – including Liuwa Plain National Park – where thousands of square kilometres are inundated every year. Another is the Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park.
Along many of Zambia’s rivers are riverine forests. Tourists will see a lot of this type of landscape as national park camps are often built on riverbanks, under the shade of huge trees such as ebony, winterthorn and the unmistakable ‘sausage tree’ (Kigelia africana). Evergreen forest, the ‘jungle’ of Tarzan films, is found only in isolated pockets in northwest Zambia – a remnant of the larger forests over the border in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Zambia boasts 20 national parks and reserves (and 34 Game Management Areas, or GMAs), and some 30% of the land is protected, but after decades of poaching, clearing and general bad management, many are just lines on the map that no longer protect (or even contain) much wildlife. However, some national parks accommodate extremely healthy stocks of wildlife and are among the best in Southern Africa. Privately funded conservation organisations have done much to rehabilitate the condition of some of these.
Admission fees to the parks vary. Each ticket is valid for 24 hours from the time you enter the park.
Environmental Issues & Conservation
Although the population is growing rapidly it is still relatively sparse, so Zambia doesn’t suffer some of the environmental problems, or at least to the same extent, as its neighbours. That being said, the country faces the daunting challenge of deforestation and consequent soil erosion and loss of productivity. Poachers set fires to ambush animals, land is regularly burned and cleared for agricultural purposes and local people chop down wood for charcoal (much of which ends up for sale in Tanzania). Despite the government’s ban on the export of raw timber to other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, illegal logging and timber smuggling continues, now primarily to meet the demand for wood from China.
One of the most important developments regarding conservation in recent years is the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Park (KAZA), a multinational effort to link the historic and instinctual migratory patterns of elephants and other wildlife between Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Angola.
Feature: Zambia’s Most Important National Parks & Habitat Areas
9800 sq km
floodplain; black lechwes, shoebills, waterbirds
walking, canoe trips, birdwatching
Best time to visit
Kafue National Park
22,400 sq km
miombo woodland, open grasslands, Kafue River; red lechwes, leopards, cheetahs, lions
wildlife drives, birdwatching, fishing
Best time to visit
Kasanka National Park
390 sq km
woodlands, plains, rivers, swamps; sitatungas, wattled cranes, hippos, blue monkeys, bats (migration Oct-Dec)
boat trips, walking, wildlife drives
Best time to visit
Lower Zambezi National Park
4092 sq km
Zambezi River, sandy flats, mopane woodland; crocs, hippos, elephants, buffaloes, lions
canoeing, boating, birdwatching, wildlife drives
Best time to visit
North Luangwa National Park
9050 sq km
Luangwa River, miombo woodland, plains; buffaloes, elephants, hippos, Thornicroft’s giraffes, leopards, lions
Best time to visit
South Luangwa National Park
9050 sq km
mopane & miombo woodland, grasslands; Thornicroft’s giraffes, Cookson’s wildebeest, lions, leopards, elephants, pukus
day & night wildlife drives, walking safaris
Best time to visit