Kafue Flats, Red and Black Lechwe
Lechwe are medium sized semi-aquatic antelope which are found close to permanent swamps and floodplains.
Zambia has three sub-species of Lechwe:
Red Lechwe (Kobus lechwe) are rufus-brown in colour with white undersides. They mainly live in the Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park with smaller herds being found in the Lukanga Swamps and Zambezi Floodplains. They can also be found in Botswana and Namibia.
Kafue Flats Lechwe (Kobus leche kafuensis) are light brown in colour, with white undersides and have dark shoulder patches with black leg markings. These are the largest of the three sub-species and the males have significantly bigger horns. They can be found on the Kafue Flats, with large herds living in Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon National Parks.
Black Lechwe (Kobus leche smithemani) have black and tan coats with a white underside. Large herds can be found in the southern Bangweulu Swamps and they have been re-introduced into Nashinga Swamps near Chinsali. They can also be found at Kasanka and Lusaka National Parks.
The Kafue Flats and Black Lechwe are only found in Zambia.
Shoulder Height: 85–110 cm
Length: 130-180 cm
Weight: 60-120 kg
Lechwe have long greasy coats, which differs in colour between the sub-species. Only males have long, lyre-shaped, ringed horns. Females are smaller and lighter in colour than males
Their hindquarters are noticeably higher than their shoulders, they have a short muzzle and the tip of their tail has black hairs. Lechwe have elongated and spreading hooves, which prevents them from sinking into the swampy ground.
All sub-species of Lechwe are water-loving, taking to the water to feed and when they feel threatened. They follow seasonal floodwaters and will only take refuge in woodlands if flooding is extreme.
Lechwe can be found in huge groups of thousands of animals, which are segregated into smaller gregarious herds of females with their young, territorial rams and, bachelors herds. They are active in the early mornings and late afternoons, lying down during the heat of the day and at night. They are slow moving on dry land, but can move rapidly in shallow waters and they are good swimmers.
During breeding season, which occurs during the rainy season, solitary rams establish territories and compete with other males for females – this is called ‘lekking’. Males hold small areas (called 'leks') and will fight to hold prime locations in the centre of the herd, where there is greater access to females. A single lamb is born after a gestation period of about 230 days. A mother will initially conceal her young on dry land while she goes in search of food.
Lechwe graze on nutrient rich semi-aquatic grasses and herbs and can be found wading up to their shoulder height to find grasses.
They out-run predators by bounding and leaping through the waters, being propelled by their powerful hind quarters. They can live for up to 15 years and are naturally preyed on by lions, leopard, cheetah, hyena, pythons and crocodiles. When frightened they stand in the water, completely submerged, leaving only their nostrils exposed.
Black Lechwe population size: 50,000
Kafue Flats Lechwe population size: less than 40,000
Red Lechwe population size: 5,000
All three sub-species are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List
Although numbers of Black Lechwe in the Bangwelu Swamps are increasing, the numbers of Kafue Flat and Red Lechwe are decreasing due to increased poaching in and around the National Parks where they live.
Drought, and the diversion of water for agriculture and hydro-electricity projects have also had a major impact on their habitats and numbers. The Kafue Flats are also used for livestock grazing with the peripheral area being densely settled by people, particularly to the south. These have had a major impact on the Kafue Flats Lechwe whose numbers have decreased from around 90,000-100,000 animals in the early 1970’s, to less than 40,000 animals today.