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Liwonde NP - A hidden gem


Anthilltiger

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Pictus Safaris
11 minutes ago, ForWildlife said:

Would there be checkered, or other sengis too in Liwonde?

 

@ForWildlife, as far as I'm aware it should just be four-toed and chequered present in Liwonde. Chequered tend to prefer denser undergrowth than four-toed, so will be more localised in Liwonde, although I recall reading somewhere that there was a chequered sengi that used to frequent the poolside at Mvuu Lodge. I don't know if you know any more @Anthilltiger?

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inyathi

@AnthilltigerThis is a great advertisement for Liwonde

 

I visited Liwonde many years ago, long before AP was founded, it was a wet season trip and the region was suffering from floods at the time, so game driving was difficult, there were a handful of black rhinos including the original pair Justerini & Brooks in the rhino sanctuary, but I think it was off limits, I don’t know when AP dismantled the sanctuary and gave the rhinos the freedom of the park.  I was very pleased when I heard AP had taken on Liwonde and then the adjoining Mangochi Forest Reserve, what they have achieved is fantastic. The park was a nice place when I went, but not the great place that it looks like it is now, as rhino numbers increase, they should become a little easier to spot, you’re bound to see one eventually. I don’t know when this is likely to happen, but I understand that at some point, AP are intending to move 150 elephants from Liwonde to Kasungu national park, a good while ago when Kasungu was well looked after, animals from there were used to restock Liwonde, but since then it has suffered very badly from poaching and some species had become extinct or near extinct, it is now being restocked. I don’t know a huge amount about Kasungu NP, but the NGO IFAW is very involved with the park and is carrying out the restocking, in 1970 there were 1000 elephants, in 2014 there were just 40, last year a 121 were counted, so moving elephants from Liwonde, would double Kasungu’s population and importantly bring in fresh genes and further relieve elephant pressure in Liwonde.

 

The evidence for the historical presence of giraffes in Malawi is quite sketchy, AP’s decision to introduce them to Majete was slightly controversial, but seems to have been a success, my guess would be that giraffes are naturally absent from Liwonde, or perhaps disappeared in the distant past.     

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Pictus Safaris

@inyathi- so interesting you mention Kasungu as I'm working on an itinerary visiting Kasungu, Vwaza Marsh, Nyika and Nkhotakota at the moment. The main reason it piqued my interest is that the dogs come in now and then from the Luangwas. But the elephant population is of course another draw.

 

@Anthilltiger- in Gorongosa in Sept'19 the team there mentioned AP had recently translocated waterbuck to Malawi from the park. I never did find out exactly where, so it's interesting to see the waterbuck population in Liwonde seems to be booming.

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inyathi

@Pictus SafarisThat would be an interesting trip, I've been to Nyika several times, the last time, I went to Vwaza Marsh and we were driven from there up to Nyika, but Lake Kazuni Safari Camp closed a few years ago, I'm not quite sure what the accommodation situation there is now. You are I would assume aware, that dogs have been seen in both Vwaza and Nyika. Searching Google for wild dogs Malawi, produced one result from Facebook that says  "MASSIVE NEWS - WILD DOGS ON... - Carnivore Research ..." but I'm not on Facebook, if I click on it, I just get the log in page, I don't understand why I can look at somethings on Facebook without any trouble, but others things like this I can't view at all, the only thing I can do is look at Google images, which reveals a trail camera photo of a dog, but I can't find out where it was taken. If you are on Facebook you might already have seen it, if you've not seen it, you would at least be able to look it up.   

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Pictus Safaris

There's sadly no accommodation in Vwaza now @inyathi, the closest being the basic MEOF lodge. The dogs seem to be visiting Vwaza less frequently nowadays, but as you point out Carnivore Research Malawi have camera-trapped dogs in Kasungu many times. I think it was 2016 when they had a single dog stay for several months, but usually it's just some yearlings dispersing through the park. Happens once every eighteen months or so. Big ol' chunk of luck needed to see them, but there's also always the chance of leopard, spotted hyena (which CRM focus on) and sometimes lion in Kasungu too.

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Anthilltiger
13 hours ago, Pictus Safaris said:

I recall reading somewhere that there was a chequered sengi that used to frequent the poolside at Mvuu Lodge. I don't know if you know any more @Anthilltiger?

@Pictus SafarisI don't, but will definitely ask when we're next at Mvuu - would be great to add another species to the list.

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ForWildlife

I think they camera trapped the same single dog in Kasungu several times in 2016 and 2017. I haven't heard from more sightings since, but I would be surprised if there weren't more sightings. A few years after the lion hunting ban in Zambia subadult male lions showed up in Kasungu and Vwaza.

IFAW has been trying to manage Lukusuzi NP, but that never happened, it seemed now they've switched their focus. It would be great if Kasungu can get restored, and it will make Lukusuzi ever more important as a connecting stepping stone with Luangwa.

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Anthilltiger
Posted (edited)

Lions

 

There is something special about hearing a lion roaring in the middle of the night while camping and finally that sound is back in Liwonde, with the introduction of 10 lions in 2018.  We will be the first to admit that we are lion obsessed and having lions in a park always gives us an extra bit of enthusiasm when getting out first thing in the morning to look for signs and tracks of the big cats.  

 

The lion population is still small in Liwonde, and so far they have been unsuccessful in raising any cubs that are old enough to survive, but there are promising signs.  We were lucky enough to be the first (we assume) to see 2 cubs when we came across a young lioness moving her two 6-week old offspring from their hill den across the road to another site.  

 

In another stroke of luck we caught her the following day moving them back again, but this time unfortunately one of the males were following her with the kind of focus that only comes with murder on the mind.  

 

Our understanding of the situation was that these were the cubs of the previous male that had subsequently been killed in a takeover and now the new coalition of 2 males were killing the cubs that could possibly not be theirs.  We assume the male was successful in finding the youngsters because a couple of weeks later we saw the female mom back with the pride sans cubs, so the wait for new lions continues.  A couple months later another female had cubs, but they also disappeared shortly after and the same female (identifiable by a big cut on her forearm) was seen mating.  There has been plenty of mating so hopefully by the beginning of 2021 there will be an explosion of cubbie cuteness!

 

(And there is an update - as of April 2021, 3 cubs have been reported.  It is hoped that some of the other females are also currently denning, so hopefully there will be a big increase in lion numbers over the next few months.)

 

The lions seem to have split into a pride of 5 females that occupy the main game area with two other females further north, while the remaining female we believe hangs out right in the south near the lodges (of course…) After the takeover in which the original 2 males were chased off and then killed, there are now 2 males which patrol the whole area but can most often be seen in the South, especially around the Chimwala plain and Chikalongwe loop.  

 

Our first few sightings of lions were underwhelming to say the least - with the pride females hanging out on the plain far from the road.  It took about 3 visits to Liwonde before we finally found one of the males and had the lions close enough to the road to get some good shots.  

 

And after our lion cub encounter, we’ve had pretty good luck with the lions, especially 3 of the females that have given us some nice sightings and photo opportunities. Hopefully soon we will have a boosted population of lions in the coming year!

 

The 2 dominant males of Liwonde:

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One of the females coming back from a hunt in the marsh:

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The males never miss an opportunity to check for estrus:

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One of the cubs that didn't make it:

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This male chased down the cubs the following day:

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Rolling around:

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Mating occurred a week after she lost her cubs:

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A bit of a tussle:

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A lazy day:

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Flehmen grimace by one of the females:

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Handsome male:

20201225_000012_LNP.JPG.8554ed82e5213e1af51b59b4f42654d4.JPG

Edited by Anthilltiger
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Anthilltiger
Posted (edited)

Cheetahs

 

We had heard that cheetahs had been reintroduced to both Majete and Liwonde before we moved to Malawi so we were excited to catch them.  Living in Rwanda, we hadn’t seen cheetahs in 3 years (Akagera doesn’t have any - although they do have the Big-5 :)) and even in Tanzania it was only really in the Serengeti that we would reliably see cheetahs. So we were looking forward to finally catching some sightings of these graceful cats - and this is where Liwonde has delivered way, way beyond our expectations!

 

We should have known the cheetahs would be special when our first sighting of a predator in Liwonde was a cheetah with an impala kill within half an hour of our first ever visit!  We had just driven in and were still working out where to go when right next to the road under a bush was the cheetah female with her kill.  She spent about 40 minutes eating before moving off and into the woods while a flock of helmeted guineafowl mobbed her - quite the extraordinary introduction to Liwonde! The female in question is CF2 (that’s her collar identifier - more on her later)

 

From a founder population of 7, cheetah numbers are now estimated at around 25 - they have absolutely thrived in Liwonde producing plenty of cubs, which have been a highlight for us.  Our best cheetah sightings have been on the floodplains in the South; I’m sure there are more further north although the habitat isn’t as conducive with all the mopane woodland. 

 

A cheetah mom with 3 sub-adult cubs is probably our favourites - she has given us fantastic sightings and is pretty relaxed around the cars.  Our first really good sighting of her and her cubs was almost missed.  We’d stopped to talk to one of the game drive vehicles that were still operating during Covid when suddenly the guide exclaimed “Cheetah” and out of the wood sauntered the four of them.  

 

We spent over an hour with them - first drinking from pools of water (which were unfortunately too far for us) before they headed back towards us and the cheetahs started chasing each other!  That’s a pretty special experience, watching 3 cubs run after each other - you can just see them honing their skills for when they need to hunt.

 

We caught them a few weeks later again - driving into the park at 6am and catching them within 5 minutes of the gate!  Again, the cubs played with complete disregard to us before finally settling down under a tree as it began to heat up.  And in all this time - probably over an hour that we spent with them we had the cheetahs all to ourselves.

 

That was a week after a good sighting that we unfortunately missed - the same 4 at a kill.  And we missed it because we’d found another cheetah family with a kill ;) This time it was a mother with 2 sub-adult cubs, whom we have seen a few times since then again. 

 

We assume that the father(s) of all these cubs are a coalition of 3 males that we’ve only seen once.  Amusingly one weekend we were heading back from Liwonde and trying to decide whether to go back to the park the following weekend or head to Majete instead.  We’d actually decided to head to Majete, but later we checked Instagram and saw that someone (that we’d actually seen in the park) had posted photos of 3 cheetahs… 

 

So when it was time to pack the car a week later and head out, our minds had been changed again to go back to Liwonde on the off chance that we could catch those cheetahs.  It was a long shot but we had an idea where the photo had been taken so we headed straight there on Saturday morning.  

 

Lo and behold, in the same area where the cheetahs had been sighted the previous week, but closer to the road under a tree sat the same 3 cheetahs! Yes, it was a chance in a million, but our hunch had paid off ;) We spent the rest of the morning with those three, until another car finally arrived and the cheetahs headed off into the woods.  And many visits later, we have not seen the coalition again.

 

So back to CF2 - the first cheetah that we had seen in Liwonde.  We’d been told a few months later that she had given birth to 6 cubs around the same time we saw her with the kill.  Others had told us about the cubs and we spent the next 4 or 5 months looking for her but we just couldn’t seem to find her - people would see her the day before we arrived, but she was never seen when we were in the park - it was so frustrating - like she was deliberately hiding from us!

 

And then the rainy season came and driving was even more limited, so we gave up on Liwonde for a couple of months (and headed to Majete instead) but decided that we’d get back for the Easter long weekend and look for her again.  And the first morning we spotted a cheetah silhouette amongst the trees… then another… and another… We’d finally found CF2 and her 6 - all still alive and about 9 months old - cheetah cubs!  She and her cubs spent the heat of the day lying in the shade, but as it got cooler they started moving around.  Most of the time the light was either too harsh or too poor or the cheetahs were too far away, but at last we’d found her! This is now our favourite family and we can’t resist looking for them every time we go back to Liwonde!

 

Our first sighting of a cheetah:

034A4495.JPG.393da172c2d38a0426466d36adc95d9f.JPG

 

CF2 has given us some great sightings:

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A chance post on Instagram had us heading back to Liwonde to find the 3 cheetah coalition:

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The next day we found a mother and 3 cubs:

034A7039.JPG.075523f0d6517107e2b58d9ecb06459f.JPG

 

These cubs are at the right age to spend lots of time playing:

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And chasing each other:

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We've spotted the mother with 2 cubs a few times around Kadangusi Hill:

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It's not often that you find cheetahs within 5 minutes of driving into any park! And we spent an hour with the mother and 3 cubs all on our own:

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The cubs spent most of their time playing while mom looked to hunt:

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We finally found the mother with 6 cubs.  

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This was at midday on the main road and we were the only ones around:

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5 of the 6 cubs hanging on a log:

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This warthog paid no attention to 7 cheetahs, even charging them at one stage:

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Hanging around in the last light of day:

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The cheetahs of Liwonde have really given us a show:

20210402_000022_LNP.JPG.3fd72ef268e6092cda679009d581c966.JPG

 

 

Edited by Anthilltiger
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Anthilltiger

Other predators

 

We know there are at least 15 spotted hyenas in the park (that was in 2015 - we hope there are more than that now).  We have heard them though at night in the south and caught a glimpse of one in the campsite once, so we know they are around - we just need to find them.

 

Jackals are quite a regular sighting for us and it’s the more uncommon side-striped jackal as opposed to the black-backed jackal that you normally see all over Southern Africa.  There seem to be jackal dens on both Riverside drive and Chimwala plains so they’re a good bet to look for at dawn and dusk, although we’ve seen them further north too.

 

As mentioned, no one talks about leopard sightings and officially I believe that there are no leopards in the park.  We assume there may be a few deep in the heart of the woods that we will never get to hear or see, but hopefully there is a plan to reintroduce leopards to the park one day soon just as they did in Majete.

 

Side-striped jackals are seen regularly:

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This one often hangs around Kombe Island:

034A8392.JPG.229e8d56e619d18e537fee319c5be698.JPG

 

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Pictus Safaris

Great cheetah pics @Anthilltiger, really enjoyed them!

 

Our local partner in Malawi tells me he spotted a leopard in Liwonde in 2019 - no photos but you might be right in suspecting one or two may still be hanging around!

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Anthilltiger
Posted (edited)

Birding

 

Liwonde has over 400 species of birds so it’s really a park not to be missed if you are a birder.  Being a river park, it has a great collection of water birds, along with the usual ones that you would expect in a protected area.  

 

One of the highlights in terms of birds is the return of the vultures.  Before AfricanParks took over the vultures were completely missing from the park.  But now you will see vultures every day catching the thermals high above while looking for predator kills.  The white-backed vultures are the most common, but in amongst them you will catch the odd white-headed vulture and if you look carefully you’ll find the Ruppell’s griffon vulture - you may mistake it for a white-backed vulture, but the yellow beak is diagnostic.

 

The migration season - between October and March - brings all the birds from around the world, but of course it will be raining!  We haven’t done a boat trip yet, but plan to do it during the rainy season to catch the migrants on the water’s edge.  

 

But even during the dry, there are plenty of birds to keep you occupied, from the ubiquitous collared palm-thrush to the abundance of openbill storks to the beautifully coloured and probably most photographed bird in Africa - the lilac breasted roller ;)

 

Plenty of white-backed vultures thanks to the predator kills:

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And often a Ruppell's griffon vulture thrown in there as well:

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There are plenty of other birds of prey, including the palm nut vulture:

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And other scavengers like the marabou stork:

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There are a couple of resident ospreys:

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And some juvenile Martial eagles:

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Ground hornbills are regularly seen, often in groups of 3 or 4:

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The rainy season brought with it the migrants, including some collared pratincoles, which we only saw once before they moved on:

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The Malachite kingfishers were also plentiful during the rainy season:

20201225_000051_LNP.JPG.8f74c999f3a809276c9c13f9b0e046b0.JPG

 

Saddle-billed storks are always interesting to watch fishing in the drying up waterholes:

20201128_000003_LNP.JPG.1c5920aa1783dcdc99a85eaf8ad1eab1.JPG

 

The long-toed lapwing was a rarity for us in Southern Africa, but a common sighting in Liwonde:

20210402_000033_LNP.JPG.a3d09934b04512dbc13ed1cc33a724f3.JPG

 

If you're looking to check off Bohm's bee-eaters from your list, there are plenty in Liwonde:

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Some really beautiful birds around the campsite, like this Eastern paradise whydah:

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And this Sulphur-breasted bush-shrike:

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And who can resist photographing the Lilac-breasted roller:

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Edited by Anthilltiger
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Anthilltiger

Overall impression of the park

 

Liwonde has blown our mind with the quality and quantity of wildlife for a park so small that was in dire straits only 5 years ago.  We are aware that we have seen the park at its best - with hardly any crowds (Covid again) and in the dry season, so look forward to seeing it green, but overall it’s really been a little gem that has kept us going back.


So if you’re planning to visit, here are some of the basics:

 

Roads

 

You’ll see normal town cars driving around - so that gives you the idea of the road conditions - anyone can get around in the park.  However, a big caveat - that’s in the dry.  While the main road of the park (Spine Rd) is all weather, the roads towards the river are all black cotton soil, so you’ll be sliding around like a figure skater once the rain covers the road.  And in all honesty, with enough rain the whole plain will be waterlogged and the animals probably won’t be around anyway. 

 

And I can update after the rainy season - there was so much rain this season that the main road to the north and Mvuu Lodge washed out in places, so you could be stranded there if there's heavy rains and you've gone by car.  The ferry ran throughout the rainy season though so there is a way in and out, and honestly not a bad place to be stuck for a few days ;) 

 

Accommodation

 

There are a few lodges in the park and some of them have campsites attached.  One of the lodges that doesn’t have a campsite is the Robin Pope Safaris lodge (Kuthengo Camp). It's the northernmost camp in the park and we haven’t been there.  The other one is Chimwala Bush Camp, set in the heart of lion territory at the base of Chinguni Hill overlooking a floodplain.  It’s a collaboration between African Parks and Kiboko Safaris with individual safari tents - it would be our choice of lodge if we decided to upgrade from camping for a night or 2 just purely on the location.   

 

The highly rated Mvuu Lodge and Camp  (run by Central African Wilderness Safaris (CAWS)) is the other accommodation located in the North of the park.  It can be accessed both from the south (28km from the gate - about an hour’s drive) or accessed via ferry from the North.  We have stayed at the campsite and it’s good - the ablutions are clean and there is a kitchen available.  It’s really nice if you’re the only campers there (as we were) but I think it’ll probably be a bit crowded if there are multiple parties camping at once.  But it does have a friendly bushpig which you may see at night ;)

 

The remaining lodge/campsites are all clustered together in the South.  It’s a bit of an odd one logistically because it’s outside the gate but inside the park…  So you need to drive out of the South gate, drive through the nearby village along the park’s fence, and then go back through the fence into the park to one of the 3 different lodges situated along a small river.  

 

All offer basic lodge facilities and dormitory facilities (which we’re not familiar with so can’t comment) and the one that seems most popular is Kutchire Lodge.  Owned and run by a friendly Malawian couple, even during Covid where most of the other places are pretty quiet there have been plenty of people staying there.  They do have a campsite but it is more for backpackers as it’s not accessible by car - and it was closed for a time thanks to one of the ousted male lions taking up residence around the lodges. 

 

Bushman’s Baobabs is the one most cited in the travel guides and from observation has the best viewing deck (and a pool).  The campsite is spread out so you’d probably be able to find a place to camp even if it was busy.  And it’s the cheapest (about $2 pppn), but the ablutions are very basic with the shower stalls backing up against the staff kitchen which is somewhat odd.  

 

Liwonde Safari Lodge is our choice of campsite, but at the height of the busy long weekend you probably wouldn't get space.  Technically there are 2 marked campsites, but could probably take in about 2 or 3 extra parties if they weren’t too big.  The ablutions are probably some of the best that we’ve come across in campsites and while it’s still very quiet due to the pandemic we stay there.  

 

Just important to note that the Southern lodges / campsites are all in close proximity to the village so there’s a good chance that it’s going to be noisy.  And I can imagine that as people start traveling again, the lodges with their mostly younger clients are going to be pretty loud, so if you’re looking for peace and quiet - you’re probably better off camping at Mvuu.  For us though, it’s all about location and with predator territory being more concentrated in the south we take the chance of music being played at night for being the first into the park and spotting a lion ;)

 

I don't actually have any photos of the accommodation facilities, so a couple of landscape shots instead:

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Rainbow over Chinguni Hill:

IMG_5920.jpg.01555fa53a714c189663925efa65b4c3.jpg

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offshorebirder

Thanks very much for this informative and entertaining series on Liwonde NP @Anthilltiger!   

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AfricIan

Wonderful to see Cheetah doing so well @Anthilltiger, especially when we think back to our visit in 2017 when went looking for the first "Guinea Pig" AP released from the boma. What a difference a few years makes :)

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Soukous
1 minute ago, AfricIan said:

What a difference a few years makes

 

and proper management

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Biko

Thanks @Anthilltigerfor this enthousiastic report about Liwonde. It’s good to see how good management can bring a park back to where it should be. I enjoyed reading your report very much and feel encouraged to visit Liwonde and Majete one day.

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Kitsafari

thank you for highlighting this hidden gem!

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