Zambia - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Zambia: the Bradt Travel Guide

Zambia under Kaunda

President Kenneth Kaunda (usually known as just ‘KK’) took over a country whose income was controlled by the state of the world copper market, and whose trade routes were entirely dependent upon Southern Rhodesia, South Africa and Mozambique. He also inherited a K50 million national debt from the colonial era, and a populace which was largely unskilled and uneducated. (At independence, there were fewer than one hundred Zambians with university degrees, and fewer than a thousand who had completed secondary school.)

In 1965, shortly after Zambia’s independence, Southern Rhodesia made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). This propelled Zambia’s southern neighbour further along the path of white rule that South Africa had adopted. Sanctions were then applied to Rhodesia by the rest of the world. Given that most of Zambia’s trade passed through Rhodesia, these had very negative effects on the country’s economy.

As the black people of Rhodesia, South Africa and South West Africa (Namibia) started their liberation struggles, Kaunda naturally wanted to support them. Zambia became a haven for political refugees, and a base for black independence movements. However ideologically sound this approach was, it was costly and did not endear Zambia to its economically dominant white-ruled neighbours. As the apartheid government in South Africa began a policy of destabilising the black-ruled countries around the subcontinent, so civil wars and unrest became the nor in Mozambique and Angola, squeezing Zambia’s trade routes further.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Zambia try to drastically reduce its trade with the south. Simultaneously it worked to increase its links with Tanzania – which was largely beyond the reach of South Africa’s efforts to destabilise. With the help of China, Tanzania and Zambia built excellent road and rail links from the heart of Zambia to Dar es Salaam, on the Indian Ocean. However, as a trading partner Tanzania was no match for the efficiency of South Africa, and Zambia’s economy remained sluggish.

During these difficult years Zambia’s debt grew steadily. The government’s large revenues from copper were used in efforts to reduce the country’s dependence on its southern neighbours, and to improve standards of living for the majority of Zambians. Education was expanded on a large scale, government departments were enlarged to provide employment, and food subsidies maintained the peace of the large urban population. Kaunda followed Julius Nyerere’s example in Tanzania in many ways, with a number of socialist policies woven into his own (much promoted) philosophy of ‘humanism’.

In retrospect, perhaps Kaunda’s biggest mistake was that he failed to use the large revenues from copper either to reduce the national debt, or to diversify Zambia’s export base – but his choices were not easy. By 1969, the Zambian government was receiving about three-quarters of the profits made by the mining industries in taxes and duties. Because of this, they were reluctant to invest further. With the stated aim of encouraging expansion in the industry and investment in new mines, the government started to reform the ownership of the copper mines. A referendum was held on the subject and the government took control of mining rights throughout the country. It then bought a 51% share in each of the mines, which was paid for out of the government’s own dividends in the companies over the coming years. Thus began ZCCM (Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines).

In the early 1970s, the world copper price fell dramatically. Simultaneously the cost of imports (especially oil) rose, the world economy slumped and the interest rates on Zambia’s debt increased. These factors highlighted the fundamental weaknesses of Zambia’s economy, which had been established to suit the colonial powers rather than the country’s citizens. The drop in the price of copper crippled Zambia’s economy. Efforts to stabilise the world copper price – through a cartel of copper-producing countries, similar to the oil-producing OPEC countries – failed. The government borrowed more money, betting on a recovery in copper prices that never materialised.

In the 1970s and 1980s Kaunda’s government became increasingly intertwined with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the search for a solution to the country’s debt. None was found. Short-term fixes just made things worse, and the country’s finances deteriorated. The West did give Zambia aid, but mostly for specific projects that usually had strings attached. What Zambia most needed was help with the enormous interest payments that it was required to make to the West.

Various recovery plans, often instituted by the IMF, were tried. In 1986 food subsidies were sharply withdrawn, starting with breakfast meal, one of the country’s staple foods. This hit the poor hardest, and major riots broke out before subsidies were hastily re-introduced to restore calm. In 1988 Zambia applied to the United Nations for the status of ‘least-developed nation’ in the hope of obtaining greater international assistance. It was rejected. By the end of the decade Zambia’s economy was in tatters. The official exchange rate bore little relation to the currency’s actual worth, and inflation was rampant. Zambia was one of the world’s poorest countries, with a chronic debt problem, a weak currency and at times very high inflation. A reputation for corruption, reaching to the highest levels of the government, did little to encourage help from richer nations.

Despite Kaunda’s many failures with the economy, his policies did encourage the development of some home-grown industries to produce goods which could replace previously imported items. It also created systems for mass education, which were almost entirely absent when he came to power.

Natural history

Zambia has many large national parks and game management areas (GMAs) where conservation and sustainable utilisation of the native wildlife are encouraged. Miombo woodland – a mixture of grassland dotted with trees and shrubs – makes up about 70% of Zambia’s natural environment, with mopane woodland dominating the lower-lying areas. The native fauna is classic big game found throughout east and southern Africa. Amongst the predators, leopard do exceptionally well here; lion are common but cheetah are not. Wild dog are uncommon, though seem to have increased in numbers in recent years, and there are many smaller predators. Zambia’s antelope are especially interesting for the range of subspecies that have evolved. Giraffe, wildebeest, waterbuck and, especially, lechwe are notable for this – each having subspecies endemic to the country. With rich vegetation and lots of water, Zambia has a great variety of both resident and migrant birds, over 750 species in total. Wetland and swamp areas attract some specialised waterfowl, and Zambia is on the edge of the range for both southern African and east African species.

Waterbuck Lower Zambezi National Park Zambia by Stefanie Van Der Vinden, DreamstimeWaterbuck in Lower Zambezi NP © Stefanie Van Der Vinden, Dreamstime


As with animals, each species of plant has its favourite conditions. External factors determine where each species thrives, and where it will perish. These include temperature, light, water, soil type, nutrients, and what other species of plants and animals live in the same area. Species with similar needs are often found together, in communities which are characteristic of that particular environment. Zambia has a number of different such communities, or typical ‘vegetation types’, within its borders – each of which is distinct from the others.


 Where they haven’t been destroyed or degraded by people, woodlands cover the vast majority of Zambia, with miombo being especially common. Because the canopies of the trees in a woodland area don’t interlock, you’ll generally find them lighter and more open than the country’s relatively few forested areas.


In most equatorial areas further north in Africa, where rainfall is higher, forests are the norm. However, there are a few specific ecological niches in Zambia where you will find forests – distinguished from woodlands by their interlocking canopy.



Zambia’s large mammals are typical of the savanna areas of east and (especially) southern Africa. The large predators here are lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog and spotted hyena, although cheetah and wild dog are relatively uncommon.

Elephant and buffalo occur in large herds in protected national parks, and in small, furtive family groups where poaching is a problem. Black rhino were probably, sadly, extinct in Zambia until they were re-introduced into North Luangwa National Park in 2003. There are also white rhino in the small, well-protected, Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park at Livingstone, re-introduced from South Africa. Antelope are well represented, with puku and impala numerically dominant in the drier areas. There are several interesting, endemic subspecies found in Zambia, including the Angolan and Thornicroft’s giraffe, Cookson’s wildebeest, Crawshay’s zebra, and two unusual subspecies of lechwe – the black and the Kafue lechwe – which occur in very large numbers in some of the country’s bigger marshy areas.

Because Zambia is a wet country, with numerous marshy areas, its natural vegetation is lush and capable of supporting a high density of game. The country has a natural advantage over drier areas, and this accounts for the sheer volume of big game to be found in its better parks.


Much of Zambia is still covered by original, undisturbed natural vegetation, and hunting is not a significant factor for most of the country’s birds. Thus, with a range of verdant and natural habitats, Zambia is a superb birding destination, with 757 different species recorded by 2010. BirdWatch Zambia – formerly the Zambian Ornithological Society has a checklist on their website, and – in partnership with BirdLife International – has designated a total of 42 ‘important bird areas’ (IBAs), covering 14% of the country.

Whilst the animal species differ only occasionally from the ‘normal’ species found in southern Africa, the birds are a much more varied mix of those species found in southern, eastern and even central Africa. The obvious celebrity is the ungainly shoebill stork, which breeds in the Bangweulu Swamps, and only one or two other places in central Africa. A lesser-known attraction is the Zambian or Chaplin’s barbet, Zambia’s only endemic bird species, found in southern Zambia around the south side of Kafue National Park. However, there are many other unusual, rare and beautifully coloured species that attract enthusiasts to Zambia, from the collared barbet to the black-cheeked lovebird, Heuglin’s robin and Schalow’s turaco.

In addition to its resident bird species, Zambia receives many migrants. In September and October the Palaearctic migrants (those that come from the northern hemisphere – normally Europe) appear, and they remain until around April or May. This is also the peak time to see the intra-African migrants, which come from further north in Africa. The rains from December to April see an explosion in the availability of most birds’ food: seeds, fruits and insects. Hence this is the prime time for birds to nest, even if it is also the most difficult time to visit the more remote areas of the country.

For more on Zambian wildlife, check out Bradt’s Southern African Wildlife.

People and culture

English is the official language in Zambia, and most urban Zambians speak it fluently. In rural areas it is used less, though only in truly remote settlements will you encounter problems communicating in English. The main vernacular languages are Bemba, Kaonde, Lozi, Lunda, Luvale, Nyanja and Tonga – though more than 72 different languages and dialects are spoken in the country. Of these, the most widely recognised and understood are Nyanja and Bemba.


Zambia has several major cultural festivals which, on the whole, are rarely seen by visitors. If you can get to any, then you will find them to be very genuine occasions, where ceremonies are performed for the benefit of the local people and the participants, and not for the odd tourist who is watching.

Cultural celebrations were strongly encouraged during Kenneth Kaunda’s reign, as he favoured people being aware of their cultural origins. ‘A country without culture is like a body without a head’, was one of his phrases. Thus during the 1980s one group after another ‘discovered’ old traditional festivals. Most are now large local events, partly cultural but also part political rally, religious gathering and sports event.

Bear in mind that, like most celebrations worldwide, these are often accompanied by the large-scale consumption of alcohol. To see these festivals properly, and to appreciate them, you will need a good guide: someone who understands the rituals, can explain their significance, and can instruct you on how you should behave. After all, how would you feel about a passing Zambian traveller who arrives, with curiosity, at your sibling’s wedding (a small festival), in the hope of being invited to the private reception?

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