Miombo is an ambiguous term. Any woodland type that has a representation of Brachystegia, Julbernadia or Isoberlinia can be termed miombo. The combined number of species within these genera is more than twenty but if just one is present then the whole woodland type is typified by them. Even if there are a hundred other species, just one of these determines the classification of the whole system.
I have worked in many forms of miombo woodland and the most striking feature of the miombo in Rufunsa for me is Brachystegia Spiciformis. It is not uncommon for Spiciformis to dominate, but here there are specimens that are grand and towering, over thirty metres tall with trunks as solid as concrete pillars. The variation in soil type also means that within a cluster of Spiciformis all of the same height, some are thin and spindly whilst others are robust and heavy set. The bark on the trunks varies as well, a feature of their age and to the untrained eye, the variation can make them look like completely distinct species. In the Luangwa valley Mopane dominates part of the landscape and is referred to as Cathedral. Here in Rufunsa, there are places where the Spiciformis should have the same regal delineation of ‘Cathedral miombo’.
At first, all that stands out in Rufunsa are the trees. Endless rolling hills covered in vegetation that is vibrant and green after the rainy season. No one can doubt the importance of the trees but sometimes the featureless landscape and the limited vision becomes claustrophobic and you find yourself longing for a view of something different. But then you get on top of a hill and above the tree line and it all seems to make perfect sense. As far as the eye can see trees stretch on and on – into the near, middle and far distance.
As time goes by though the other characters of this landscape come out on display. The flowers of Monotes and Cassia in their brilliant reds and yellows, various shrubs and suffrutices that blossom after the first burns go through, Syzigiums along drainage lines burst with white scented blooms and then from July onwards, the miombo flush that is 2 months of shifting reds, yellows, orange and green. Fires sweep through, some as controlled burns, others that creep in from outside and turn everything black. But within a couple of weeks, fresh shoots sprout up and there is deep green, purple, red and yellow shooting out of the ash.
The bird life is constant as well. A new one for me is the spotted creeper which has been darting amongst the trees through our camp. Schallow’s turacos with their rasping calls, half collared kingfisher sweeping up the river, familiar chats that are just that – familiar and everywhere. Wood owls hooting at night, scopps owl, barn owl, fiery necked nightjar all contributing to the evening calls. Raptors are not so easy to see but gymnogene is sometimes present in the forest and lizard buzzards call throughout the day. And the dawn chorus of the Heuglin’s robin just reminds you that you are in miombo in Zambia.
We have had unusual mammal sightings as well. A pair of Cape Clawless otters chasing each other across the lawn in front of camp, baboons around, in and through the camp constantly (my guess is that they are Chacma but some do look yellow) and a pair of grey duiker that were so calm I could watch them for 5 minutes before driving on. Bushbuck are very vocal but hard to see and whilst we have captured roan and sable on the camera trap I had not yet seen any, until I saw 19 this morning by the Conservancy campsite. There is always fresh spoor of leopard, civet and genet and occasionally hyena tracks on the road. Then one morning in August, two lions called about two kilometres from camp. First they called at 05:45am and then again at 06:00. That is when we all knew – things could start to get very interesting around here! National Geographic’s edition of August 2013 contains a riveting yet haunting article on African lions given their population declines. The Lower Zambezi ecosystem is ranked 10th as a landscape where lions have a long terms chance of survival. Rufunsa Conservancy aims to build up prey species through forest management, law enforcement and enhanced community engagement. This effort will hopefully contribute to this area becoming more of a sanctuary for endangered species like lion.
— Written by Dorian Tilbury, Project Manager for the Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project