Nsumbu National Park is situated in the South Western corner of Tanganyika and covers approximately 2,000 kms Sq, including some 80kms of the most pristine shoreline of Lake Tanganyika. It is arguably the most important protected area of the whole Lake and one of only 3 national parks along the entire lake shore.
Nsumbu National Park is the only place along Lake Tanganyika where elephants survive, once roaming widely all around the lake.
Nsumbu National park falls firmly within the widely recognized Eastern Afromontane Biodiversity Hotspot (CEPF) and encompasses parts of a priority 1 Freshwater Key Biodiversity Area (Lake Tanganyika) and a priority 2 terrestrial Key Biodiversity Area (Nsumbu NP). These KBAs are globally recognized as important biodiversity areas and it can be argued that Nsumbu encompasses some of the most intact and diverse habitats within these KBAs.
Nsumbu is part of the wider Nsumbu-Mweru complex in Northern Zambia, Nsumbu is however the richest area within this complex.
The park itself is characterized by a high number of perennial waterways, varied vegetation ecotypes and 80kms of Lake Tanganyika shoreline. Rare fish in the cichlid genera, endangered Sumbu-Itigi forests, a rich fish breeding area and one of the most threatened elephant populations in Africa makes Nsumbu an astounding but unknown protected area. Altitude ranges from over 1,300m asl in the highlands to the east, down to the water levels of Lake Tanganyika at 760m asl.
Nsumbu is dominated by the Lufubu river and Tondwa swamp catchments and drainage systems, both draining into Lake Tanganyika through verdant valleys and floodplains and providing some of the few inflows into Tanganyika largely unaffected by agricultural runoff and sedimentation. The Lufubu river travels over 80 km entirely within the boundaries of NNP before the final 55kms into Lake Tanganyika forms the eastern boundary of the park. The Lufubu is therefore one of very few rivers in Zambia largely protected on both banks by National Park status.
NNP is an exceptionally diverse habitat receiving an annual rainfall of around 1,300mm. One of only 3 protected areas around the entire Lake Tanganyika shoreline, Nsumbu is arguably the most diverse in terms of habitats incorporated within the PA. It can be broadly characterized by 3 habitat types.
Extensive Miombo woodland forest
The southern section is at higher altitude and characterized by typical miombo woodlands interspersed with dambos along the Lufubu river. In its mid region the river slows into oxbow lagoons and has formed sizeable floodplains with extremely productive grasses and wetlands of about 30km2. The majority of the southern section of the park is dominated by Brachystegia species over 1,000km2 in extent.
Floodplains and Water
North of the river the park is characterized by a series of large floodplains beginning with Tondwa Swamp and floodplain, all waters from this area drain towards Lake Tanganyika through the Nkamba and Chisala stream systems. This system of wetlands, floodplain and surrounding forest contain the largest diversity and populations of mammals within Nsumbu, especially antelope.
The areas around Tondwa are miombo woodland, with decreasing altitude the habitat changes to open woodlands and large stands of the endemic Sumbu Itigi thickets, a unique assemblage of combretum like plants characterized by Baphia (IUCN redlist), Entada (IUCN redlist), Bussea, and Burttia genus. These Itigi thicket forest remain the most important vegetation type within the region, being virtually extinct outside the protected area due to agricultural land clearing. Itigi forests contain 3 near endemic reptiles and create a unique ecoregion in central Africa (Kideghesho 2001, National Forestry Programme) that is classified as endangered. This habitat was previously vital for the black rhino population and today the habitat in Nsumbu NP remains the only stand of Sumbu-Itigi thicket affected by large herbivores (elephant and buffalo) suspected of being critical to its floristic diversity. It is presumed that the impenetrable Sumbu-Itigi forests surrounding Lake Tanganyika within NNP are largely responsible for the survival of the remaining elephant population when high poaching and low levels of law enforcement prevailed during the 1980s and 1990s.
An aquatic profusion of life
Finally, there is the significant area of lakeshore and underwater habitat the is Lake Tanganyika itself containing hundreds of endemic fish and invertebrate species.
The shoreline and waters within Nsumbu NP are unusually shallow for the Lake Tanganyika, these littoral zones being the richest and most diverse of any fresh water system (Vadeboncoeur et al, 2011). Some 50% of all cichlid species in Lake Tanganyika are presented in NNP, of which 5% are considered endemic. The cichlids of Lake Tanganyika are widely considered the most diverse population in the world (+-250 species) and of special interest to evolutionary biologists. Over 75 species of non-cichlid fish and 400 species of invertebrates makes the total number of animal species in Lake Tanganyika astounding at an estimated 1,000.
Additionally, the rich shallow waters of NNP are vital breeding areas for almost all fish species, including the economically important species such as from the Lates, Boulengerochromis, and Limnothirssa groups of fish, these forming the bulk of a fishery that is estimated to provide up to 40% of the protein needs of some 1 million people with a further 10 million people benefitting from the fishery indirectly. NNP is one of only a handful of recognized protected area in Lake Tanganyika and the only one considered ideal breeding area for commercial fishes.
The artisanal and semi commercial fishery operating in the waters surrounding the protected area remain the most productive in the Southern section of the lake, testimony to the benefits of the NNP and the protection it receives.