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.
Hunting has greatly damaged Zambia's wildlife. The 1970s were a devastating time, when other countries' civil wars were funded with ivory coming out of the parks. In 1960 North Luangwa had 70,000 elephants; this figure dropped to an estimated 5000 by 1986. Under pressure from international organisations, however, the Zambian government introduced serious anti-poaching and development measures. And in early 2013 Zambia announced a temporary ban on the hunting of lions, leopards and other endangered big cats (19 hunting concessions were suspended and the director-general of ZAWA was fired because of allegations of corruption at the same time); however from 2015 this ban was overturned.
Whatever the future policies are in terms of big cats, hunting in the Game Management Areas (GMAs) that surround the national parks will continue. To many, this might at first seem like a compromise of conservationist ideals, but it’s argued that if there was no hunting there would be indiscriminate and unregulated slaughter.
Arguably, the biggest problem is indiscriminate snaring for commercial bush meat. If caught poaching for meat the punishment is mitigated and considered a lighter offense than for ivory (this includes if someone is caught with a dead elephant with the tusks still on). If the poacher is caught with an animal with the skin still on the animal then the punishment is a minimum five years in prison (since it’s not considered a bush meat kill but rather a ‘trophy’). Sold ‘underground’ in the back of shops or door to door to trusted customers, it’s the middle and upper class, mostly in Lusaka, who are driving the bush-meat market. After all, widely available buffalo, warthog and antelope is on average 50% more expensive than beef. And there are only around a dozen private farms in Zambia where game is raised to be slaughtered for the commercial market, unlike South Africa where it’s a huge industry.
As might be expected, there's considerable tension between environmental preservation and conservation and Zambia's underground wealth. Many worry that it's only a matter of time before the profits to be wrung from the region's mineral resources will be too seductive to deny.
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
Politically speaking it's been a tumultuous few years for Zambia: since late 2014, it's had three presidents (including one who's died), two elections and an overall tense atmosphere characterised by disputed results, riots and violence.
After ruling for three years, President Sata passed away in late 2014 following a long, undisclosed illness, aged 77. He became the second president to die in office within six years, after Levy Mwanawasa passed away in 2008. His temporary replacement was vice president Guy Scott, a white Zambian, who took over the leadership for three months until scheduled elections in 2015; due to the Constitution, Scott wasn't able to run for presidency on the basis of his British parents not being born in Zambia.
In 2015 the defence minister Edgar Lungu was inaugurated as Zambia's sixth president. He won in a narrow victory with 48.4% of the vote, taking over leadership for the remaining one year of Sata's five-year term. He defeated opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema (better known as HH), who denounced the election as fraudulent.
It was a process to repeat itself all over again a year later in the 2016 elections. This time round was marred by political violence, opposition arrests and alleged voting fraud. Lungu again emerged victorious with 50.35% of the vote to Hichilema’s 47.67%. Once again there were widespread claims that the results were rigged, and the matter was taken to Zambia’s Constitutional Court. The case was duly thrown out, and Lungu was sworn in for his five-year term on 13 September 2016.
The 59-year-old President Lungu faces challenges rising from a number of ongoing issues, namely tackling corruption, nationwide power cuts that continue to cripple the economy, wildlife poaching and the influence of Chinese investment in the mining, agriculture and manufacturing sectors.