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Katavi National Park lies in Mpanda district in the west of Tanzania. With an area of 4471 km², it is Tanzania’s third largest park. Together with the neighbouring Rukwa, Lukwati and Luafi Game Reserves and numerous forest reserves, this ecosystem of 25 000 km² is the heart of one of the biggest and richest wildlife areas in Tanzania. Katavi National Park got its name from the spirit Katabi (from the Wabende tribe). Legend says that it lives near Lake Katavi in a twin pair of trees (Tamarindus indica and Faidherbia albida).
Weather and seasons
Seasons define much of the park’s ecohydrology: while Lake Chada and Lake Katavi are grasslands during the dry season, they transform into shallow lakes with the onset of heavy rains during the rainy season (October to April). The average rainfall is approximately 930 mm and follows a bimodal pattern with short rains in slight low in February.
Water & Wetlands
All rivers in Katavi National Park but one drain towards Lake Rukwa, a slightly saline lake without an outlet (“end lake”) in the South of the Rukwa Rift Valley (approximately 2 300 km²). Only the seasonal river Nkamba in the northwest drains towards the west into Lake Tanganyika.
The vital lifeline of the Park is the Katuma river which feeds Lake Katavi in the north and Lake Chada in the center as well as the huge Katisunga floodplain (425 km²). In recent years, this river as well as the Kapapa and Ngolima rivers, which feed lake Chada, tend to dry out earlier due to illegal damming upstream outside the national park. Only a few very small muddy pools remain in the river beds in the dry season. Obviously this is a significant threat to the entire ecosystem.
Most of Katavi National Park lies inside the Rukwa Rift Basin, which is part of the Central African Rift System. This huge tectonic basin (360 km long and 40 to 60 km wide) is a parallel arm of the Tanganyika Rift Valley; Lake Rukwa is its lowest south-eastern point (Delvaux 1998).
Two major landscape units (“land regions”, Rukwa Development Atlas RDA 1984) can be found in the area of Katavi National Park: the rift valley floor and the bordering rift valley shoulders on both sides with the adjacent highlands, mountains and plateaus east and west of the valley. The western “shoulder” is the Llyamba lya Mfipa Escarpment and the eastern “shoulder” is the Mlele Escarpment.
The valley floor consists of flat to slightly undulated wooded terrain which is split by vast floodplains, seasonal lakes, rivers and shallow drainage lines. The altitude in these areas ranges from 820 m to 960 m.
Much of the Mlele Escarpment resembles a continuous cliff, steep and carved by perennial and seasonal streams with many waterfalls (Chorangwa, Lukima and Ndido Falls). In the Kapapa area in the northeastern part of Katavi National Park the escarpment is broken and various outliers are present: Igongwe, Kapimbye, and Kapapa Hills, which might be considered as inselbergs (RDA 1984). The southeast of the Mlele Escarpment is not as distinctly steep and high, because it is split into two steps in the Lukima and Rungwa areas.
The Llyamba lya Mfipa Escarpment is heavily dissected with various high mountains and steep slopes. Its highest mountain reaches 1560 m.
Katavi National Park is the heart of one of the biggest and richest wildlife areas in Tanzania, the Katavi-Rukwa ecosystem. It encompasses the second largest wildlife population of Tanzania (after the bigger national parks of Serengeti and Ruaha). In total, 50 species of large to medium mammal species are confirmed to exist in the park. Inventories still need to be conducted to identify or confirm particularly the nocturnal and secretive species.
Aerial counts have been conducted irregularly since the 1980ies and foot transect counts were undertaken in 2004 (Waltert & Meyer) together with a minimum total count for hippopotamus (Meyer, Shanyangi & Kisambuka, 2004, 2005). The estimates presented below result from the foot transect counts.
The park enjoys large herds of zebras (approximately 20 500), topis (17 300), buffalo (15 500) and impala (15 200).
The elephant population inside the park is estimated at approximalety 2 700 animals and even up to 6 500 animals for the whole Katavi/Rukwa ecosystem.
Hippos (4 000), warthogs (5 000) and giraffe (4 300) also occur in large numbers.
Other herbivores frequently encountered in the park are roan (500), bohor and southern reedbuck (3 000), hartebeest (1 700), waterbuck (1 600), eland (1 600), bushbuck (1 300), duikers and other small antelopes (7 000). Sable and greater kudus are rare in the park, but occur more frequently in the surrounding highlands in Rukwa Game Reserve.
Predators include lion, leopard, spotted hyena, cheetah, wild dog and crocodiles, wild cat, serval cat and the caracal. Lion and hyena numbers were assessed in 2005 as part of the ecological monitoring: Katavi National Park has approximately 200 lions above the age of one year and approximately 750 hyenas (Kiffner, Meyer, Waltert).
The vegetation is a colourful mosaic with closed to open woodlands, shrublands, grasslands, swamps, seasonal lakes and riverine vegetation. A huge variety of grasses, herbs and flowers (many flowering in wet season), shrubs and trees (226 different tree species recorded) can be found.
In the flat and seasonally inundated areas (for example Lake Katavi, Katisunga Mbuga, Lake Chada and Mpunga Mbuga), the vegetation tends to be grass-dominated, with perennial grasses and herbs. The few shrubs and trees are mostly found on termite mounds. These vast flood plains are the most productive areas with nutrient rich alluvial soils. They are exposed to frequent fires. Towards the drainage lines and floodplain, a transition zone can be found where woody species grow that tolerate seasonal inundation or high ground water level, such as the Faidherbia albida trees along Lake Katavi.
The slightly undulated terrain in the valley floor is well drained and therefore supports the growth of woody vegetation. Huge trees are scarce where the soil is sandy, as they tend to incline and fall.
The elevated areas on the outlying foothills of the escarpment are occupied by mixed woodlands. Only from an altitude greater than 900 m do these woodlands consist of the typical Miombo species. The escarpment itself is covered by dense to closed woodlands. Thicket-like riverine vegetation can be found along the steep creeks. The Miombo of the hilltops is dominated by Julbernadia globiflora which form a 15 m tall crown on top of the hills higher than 1500 m.