Expert Reviews – Liwonde NP

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Birder’s paradise.
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Liwonde feels the most “African” of Malawi’s national parks with its beautiful setting along the Shire River, grunting hippos and easy to see herds of elephants. With its variety of habitats, including Borassus palm-studded floodplains, mopane woodlands and lagoons, Liwonde is a birder’s paradise. Specialities include the brown-breasted barbet, Boehm’s bee-eater, Lillian’s lovebird and Livingstone’s flycatcher – and we managed to see both the Pel’s fishing owl and African skimmer on the same boat trip. Most predators have been hunted out – but Liwonde still has a heavily protected population of black rhino.

Liwonde faces big conservation challenges, as it is a relatively small park surrounded by huge numbers of impoverished people. Thankfully the inspirational African Parks took over the management of the park in 2015. They are making a very positive impact, empowering the local communities, training rangers, preventing illegal fishing and removing snares. I have high hopes for the future of this beautiful national park.

Malawi’s flagship conservation area
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The reserve, named after Chief Liwonde who championed the area’s protection, was proclaimed a national park in 1973 to protect the extraordinary biodiversity and conservation potential of this attractive area. But decades of mismanagement, poaching and human encroachment followed before the Malawian government finally acknowledged the deteriorating condition of the park and sought assistance to rectify the unsustainable situation.

With assistance from numerous non-profit and non-governmental organisations a 47km2 fenced sanctuary was created inside the national park, enabling the reintroduction of black rhino. Further successful relocations of Cape buffalo, eland, roan antelope, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and Burchell’s zebra made Liwonde a crucial reservoir of rare species in Malawi. These positive conservation developments and successful reintroductions culminated in the acclaimed African Parks non-profit taking over the long-term management of the park in 2015. Further successful reintroductions of cheetah and lion followed, with wild dog slated to return to Liwonde soon.

Dominated by the spectacular Shire River, the country’s largest perennial waterway, Liwonde is a highly prized safari destination. The river is home to thriving populations of hippo and crocodile, as well as being a birdwatcher’s paradise (over 300 species have been recorded in the national park). The Shire floodplains – fringed by palm savannah, baobabs and thick riverine vegetation – are a magnet for healthy numbers of elephant and waterbuck that thrive in this well-watered environment. Wildlife-watching boat cruises add another exciting element to the Liwonde safari experience.

Riverside birdlife and conservation stories
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Although lacking the full Big Five complement, this African Parks-run reserve is one of Malawi’s best safari destinations, with the country’s largest populations of elephant (more than 500) and endangered black rhino (Liwonde’s rhino sanctuary recently welcomed two calves). Thanks to the Shire River meandering through the fertile floodplains dotted with baobabs and towering Borassus palms, Liwonde is one of Africa’s best places for river-based wildlife watching, and the lodges offer boat and canoe trips to the watery realm of hippos and crocs. The park’s bird life is exceptional – its riverbanks, woodlands and lagoons support over 400 species, including rare lappet-faced and white-backed vultures, Pel’s fishing owls, Böhm’s bee-eaters, Lillian’s lovebirds and Livingstone’s flycatchers. Liwonde’s cheetah reintroduction, which has returned the big cats to Malawi after 20 years’ absence, and Robin Pope Safaris’ new Kuthengo Camp are further reasons to visit the park.

Archetypal African river setting
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In footballing terms, Liwonde isn’t quite good enough to crack the first division, but subjectively it ranks among my very favourite African national parks. Dominated by the Shire River, it evokes every romantic notion of untrammelled Africa, especially at night when the air resonates with the chirruping of frogs. It supports around 800 elephant, as well as some 2000 hippos and a range of other grazers including impala, waterbuck, sable antelope, bushbuck and warthog, plus vervet monkeys and yellow baboons. Leopards occur naturally, but are secretive, and they were joined by a pride of lions in 2018. The park also contains a closely guarded rhino sanctuary that forms a stronghold not only for introduced black rhino, but also for recently reintroduced populations of buffalo, eland, hartebeest, roan antelope and zebra. Liwonde is a superb park for birding, with more than 400 species recorded, Aquatic birds are prolific and include the African fish eagle, saddle-billed stork, Pel’s fishing owl, palm-nut vulture, rufous-bellied heron and white-backed night heron. Localised woodland species includes the brown-breasted barbet, Boehm’s bee-eater, Lilian’s lovebird, Livingstone’s flycatcher, collared palm thrush and green twinspot. A key attraction of this reserve is the varied range of activities, which include sensational boat trips and guided walks, as well as night and daytime game drives. An all-round gem.

Life and death at the mighty Shire River
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The focal point of Liwonde is the Shire River, which is just one of Africa’s magic waterways. Lined with borassus palms and floodplains, the river is a magnet for wildlife and elephants can often be seen drinking or even crossing. Of all the activities, I like the boat trips the most. A good captain knows exactly when to cut the engine so that the current of the river takes the boat exactly where you want it to be – like 50cm from the open mouth of a huge crocodile or next to a little branch supporting a row of cuddled up bee-eaters sleeping at night. This is one of the few places in Africa where there is a good chance of seeing the elusive Pell’s fishing owl and I’ve been lucky to see one sleeping in a tree on the early-morning bush walk. There are no lions in the park, but black rhino have been reintroduced in a protected fenced-off area.

Loving Liwonde!
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I was in Liwonde for the first day of conservation NGO African Parks’ historic elephant relocations, when they started a huge operation to move 500 pachyderms to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. It was my job to look after a darted elephant by monitoring her breathing while she was under sedation, and it was the most emotional wildlife experience I’ve had the privilege to be part of. For this reason, Liwonde will always be special to me – but even without that, the park would still be one of my favorites. Liwonde has so much character, with dappled miombo woodlands, fever-tree forests, baobab and palm trees, and huge candelabra euphorbia scattered all around, while the Shire River cuts a swath through golden floodplains. And the wildlife is superb – with the recent relocation of lions here, it’s now a Big Five destination. Boat safaris are a must – the river is teeming with hippos, the rich birdlife includes skimmers that seem to dance in formation over the water, and the sunsets are just unbelievable.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.8/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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