When David Livingstone reached Linyanti on the banks of the Chobe in 1851, he not only found the upper reaches of the Zambezi, but also large numbers of a species of spiral-horned antelope specially adapted to the seasonally flooded marshlands, the lechwe (Kobus leche). Livingstone had been the first to describe this species to science when he became the first European to reach Lake Ngami in 1849, and he later discovered another subspecies when he travelled upstream and into Kafue Flats.
Lechwe are small to medium sized antelope, reddish-yellow brown in colour and always found living and feeding close to water. The vast majority of their diet is grass and sedge, grazed in semi-aquatic swamps and marshes, and when threatened they flee into open water, where many predators, such as lion, hyena and wild dog hesitate to follow. Their hooves are specially adapted for wet conditions, being particularly elongated and with a wide splay. Like other closely related species in the genera, such as waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) and puku (Kobus vardoni), the coat is covered is a pungent oil which helps waterproof the animal’s fur.
The lechwe is of particular concern to conservationists today as its distribution is highly restricted to its specialised wetland habitat. It is split into five distinctly recognisable subspecies (ssp.), one of which, ssp. robertsi, known only from north-east Zambia, is already extinct.
Of the remaining four subspecies, ssp. anselli, which occurs in the south-eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has declined from an estimated total population of 20,000 in the 1980s to perhaps only 1,000 today, with declines largely blamed on commercial poaching, making extinction a very real threat.
The black lechwe, population, ssp. smithemani, is stable but low at around 30,000, but the entire population is restricted to the Bangweulu Swamps in Zambia.
The Kafue lechwe, ssp. kafuensis, has increased slowly from 40 - 45,000 in the early 1980s to between 50,000 and 70,000; however again the entire population is restricted to a single location, the Kafue Flats (again in Zambia), making both these last subspecies vulnerable in conservation terms.
The final subspecies, the red or southern lechwe, ssp. leche, is of slightly less conservation concern; its population is estimated at 98,000, of which 85% occur in the Okavango Delta, with good numbers found in the Kwando/Linyanti/Chobe area of Botswana, Namibia and Zambia, and also into the upper Zambezi. Numbers are stable or increasing in protected areas, yet declining elsewhere.
The lechwe’s specialised habitat requirements and concentration in restricted wetlands makes it particularly vulnerable to local changes in water management regimes introduced by man, such as dams and drainage for agricultural development, and the species is dependent on the conservation of our great wetlands for its survival.
Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 11, Dec 2012)
Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Read more on lechwe in the March 2013 issue of the Zambezi Traveller:
Zambia’s Endemic Lechwe