Desert Jewel: Saving the Okavango Delta
In 2014, Botswana’s Okavango Delta became the 1,000th site on UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage List. A milestone for UNESCO and the Okavango, the honor has come in the hands of conservationists such as National Geographic Fellow Steve Boyes, who calls the Delta his “spiritual home.”
With an interdisciplinary team of scientists, the South African native leads poignant research expeditions across the vast wetland wilderness as part of the National Geographic-funded Okavango Wilderness Project. The team’s first expedition in 2015 covered 1,500 miles along the Okavango River from “spring to sand”; and seven subsequent expeditions have since been conducted throughout the ecosystem. As the team studies the sources of the river and collects data by canoe and mountain bike, there is no shortage of surprise encounters with wildlife. Hippos overturn their canoes and bees invade their research sites. During this time, the data is broadcast in real time. Although the methods can be complex, the goal is simple: to preserve and support this vital ecosystem. Here are 10 reasons to care about protecting the Okavango Delta.
Taken on a drone: Visible from space, the Okavango encompasses Africa’s largest wilderness of untouched wetlands and spans a 3,000 square mile patchwork of floodplains, canals, lagoons and thousands of islands.
Do not cloud these waters: As the largest freshwater wetland in southern Africa, the large Okavango River basin serves as the primary source of water for one million people.
The ultimate drinker: The world’s largest remaining African elephant population finds refuge in these grassy floodplains, numbering some 130,000 pachyderms.
The soul of Africa: The lush landscape is also home to some of Africa’s most endangered and vulnerable mammals, with significant populations of cheetahs, white rhinos, black rhinos, African wild dogs and lions.
Still awake: Although previously believed to have been locally extirpated, African wild dogs have been sighted by expedition researchers in the source lakes of the Angolan highlands of Okavango.
Enclave: The Okavango has the distinction of being a rare inland delta system that does not flow into a sea or ocean, with a nearly intact wetland system.
Nature finds a way: The delta defies convention by flooding every year during the dry season, and native plants and animals synchronize their life cycles with seasonal flooding
A land that time has forgotten: Amid the parched Kalahari sand basin, this oasis remains pristine – and frozen in time – largely due to previous decades of civil unrest and border wars in the Angolan watershed, surrounded by landmines and l shelter from commercial development. As a result, many people live along the Okavango River in the traditional way of communities centuries ago.
Where the wild things are: This biodiversity hotspot is full of thousands of plant species; hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish; and countless invertebrates, including more than 90 species of praying mantis.
Open your iNaturalist app: To date, the Okavango Wilderness Project has discovered at least 24 species potentially new to science, as well as 38 species previously unknown in Angola.
On some Botswana safaris with National Geographic, you may hear about the conservation efforts firsthand from a researcher at the Okavango Wilderness Project. The proceeds of your expedition support the work of these environmentalists and others like them around the world.