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What is “Wilderness”? Why Protect it? A Mission for the Future…

“Wilderness”… What does this mean to the modern human being? Why should we value it in our day and age? Why is it there? Is option value enough for people, who will never see it, to protect it? The ambiguity of our relationship with wilderness was illustrated very well by Roderick Nash: “On one hand,...

“Wilderness”… What does this mean to the modern human being? Why should we value it in our day and age? Why is it there? Is option value enough for people, who will never see it, to protect it? The ambiguity of our relationship with wilderness was illustrated very well by Roderick Nash: “On one hand, “wilderness” is inhospitable, alien, mysterious, and somewhat threatening. On the other, beautiful, friendly, and capable of elevating and delighting us”. The preservation of wilderness areas that are undisturbed and truly “wild” is imperative, not only for future generations, but also for the landscapes themselves. The wild plant and animal communities dependent on these ecosystems did not arise through “sustainable management” or conservation interventions, but rather through millions of years of natural selection and evolution in the absence of modern man. The declaration of World Heritage Sites around the globe is recognition of our responsibility to preserve our natural and cultural heritage by being mindful of the way in which we interact with these places. Our research expeditions across the Okavango Delta supports the Wilderness Foundation’s lobby for World Heritage Status. A step in the right direction that will stimulate positive change for the wilderness hidden within this vast inland delta… Here I discuss some of the dynamics that historically protected remote “wilderness” areas in Africa and put forward some ideas about why we should care and what we need to do…


Steve Boyes
The view over Vundumtiki Island just before a massive rainstorm wet a stunning sunset over this paradise... (Steve Boyes)
Neil Gelinas (Screenshot)
The "Bush Boyes", Steve and Chris, poling past an animal crossing to the west of Vundumtiki Island as another big storm approaches... (Neil Gelinas (Screenshot))
Steve Boyes
View from a mokoro on the Maunachira Channel near Vundumtiki. Away from the LandRover and motorboat you feel like you have opened a door that was blocking you from experiencing the real world. You feel alive for the first time! The Okavango wilderness has a solution for everything. Waste is removed and dealt with as it is created and life always supports more life. Whether this be a hooded vulture eating lion faeces, a lion eating a giraffe, a dung beetle rolling up buffalo droppings, or the massive papyrus rafts and reed beds filtering all waste from the water, this wilderness is the custodian of ecological balance in the region. The waters of the Okavango are the cleanest I have ever tasted. The landscapes are manicured by the abundance of life, by the hard work of elephants, buffalo, hippo and the multitude of animals feeding on this green bounty. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
A burning sunrise every morning in late summer signals a new year and the changing of the seasons. From the green, lush tranquility of the wet summer, to the bustle and danger of the flood season... It is almost like the whole place resets every morning! As far as the human experience in the Okavango wilderness goes, this is a harsh environment that will try to sting, bite, scratch, burn and dehydrate you from the moment you arrive. You need to constantly think about where your next drink comes from, when you will next eat, what you will be eating... Life becomes simple and these daily hardships form your connection to the pulse of the "wild", to the ebb and flow of the "wilderness". The simple activity of existing for a short time in the wilderness has all the elements of a spiritual retreat. You will become mindful of every action, you will live in the moment, you will establish a relationship with the natural world around you, you will feel make realizations about your past, present and future, you will value life more, you will love more, you will cry, and eventually tanned, scratched and still a but itchy you will feel at peace, part of a living, breathing, interactive global community comprising millions of species, all shouldered with the responsibility of supporting "life" on earth.(Steve Boyes)


It is interesting to note that the probably the greatest conservationists of all time in Africa were and continues to be the tsetse fly, the buffalo, and the lion. The tsetse is a super-abundant, almost indestructible blood-sucking fly that tirelessly harasses human beings and their cattle when given the opportunity. They spread sleeping sickness to livestock and people, making it almost impossible to exist in areas with lots of tsetse flies. “Tsetses” are the agents of the wilderness and are now being eradicated throughout Africa by aerial spraying and trapping campaigns. To keep existing tsetse fly populations at high levels you need rain and big herds of buffalo. For big herds of buffalo you need wide-open untouched grasslands that can support local migrations in search of grazing. If there are buffalo, there are lion, and lions do not mix well with people or livestock. This triumvirate, the tsetse, lion and buffalo, have protected Africa’s wilderness areas for millennia, keeping people and their cattle at bay. The historical distribution of the tsetse fly and its associates can be perfectly matched to the distribution of national parks and reserves established across subtropical Africa in the last 125 years. Today, all three are falling victim to human-wildlife conflict on the boundaries of all our conservation areas.

     “The remaining wilderness areas are ring-fenced by commercial logging, the charcoal industry, poaching for bushmeat, hunting, slash-and-burn agriculture, and creeping settlements, villages, outposts and farms, bringing the end of “wilderness” in Africa and the world ever closer. Soon only ineffective “fences and fines” will be the only thing holding back people, livestock, roads and development from civilizing these last wild places. Lost forever…”


Wilderness areas around the world, in the Amazon, the Congo, our poles, the Kalahari, and our deepest oceans, are all ancient refuges for life on earth, life that eventually resulted in us, life that has survived climate change, meteor strikes, and mass extinctions. These wilderness areas have moved and changed slowly and sustainably with the shifting continents, drifting poles and periodic ice ages, always finding a stable ecological balance capable of supporting continued life on earth.


     “When you spend time in a true, remote wilderness area you have opportunity to take yourself back 100,000 years like you are undoing everything that we have been done and this place, this wilderness, is perfect again. Playing out this fantastical dream is the essence of any wilderness experience. The invigorating feeling that you are not in control of your surroundings, that you are a refugee in a place that is far greater than us, a place with teeth, tusks, claws and horns, a place in the wilderness that will make you believe in “God”…”


Steve Boyes
Hippo courting in the deep water... In February, the nights in the Okavango Delta are punctuated by the piercing, screaming, echoing calls of mating hippos. Imagine what two tyrannosaurus fighting would sounds like? Double the ferocity and volume and you have mating hippos. A truly powerful expression of the wilderness... (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
The Okavango Delta is home to hundreds of dragonfly species. In this one afternoon I was able to photograph 24 different dragonflies. Miniature perfection... (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Lion cubs on Vundumtiki Island. These ambassadors of wilderness cannot persists outside of protected areas and consequently they will go with the last African wilderness... (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Long reed frog found clasping to a reed as we passed by on the mokoro. The Okavango is populated by millions of reed frogs able to consume up to 500 mosquitoes a night. That billions of mosquitoes turned into bird and fish food. Amphibians are the first to go and when they do it is a sign that the ecosystem is collapsing... (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Baby black rhinoceros running past. These amazing creatures went locally extinct in the Okavango Delta in the early 1980s due to unchecked poaching for their horns. Over the decade Wilderness Safaris has re-introduced rhino to the Okavango. This will not bring back the "Okavango rhinos", but it is a step in the right direction. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Young green mamba moving through the thick green grass. You need to follow "game paths" and all times and be very careful if you leave them. Snakes are avoiding us and we need to help them do that. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
A breeding herd of African elephant move past with a small calf. Hyenas killed this calf about two hours later. Such is life in the wilderness... Beautiful things are born and de everyday. (Steve Boyes)


     “It is our responsibility as a global community of Earth’s citizens to reach out to those who do not have the opportunities we have for reflection on the changes happening around us, on the imminent threat to species survival in our forests, at our Poles, in our oceans, and across remote, untouched landscapes. Credit crunch or not, we need to tighten our belts, live with less, and give more. I am not necessarily talking about donating money; I am talking about investing your mind power and energy in a new future. We do not need to riot or burn things. We need to act for the good of each other and break the cycle of mistrust that fuels the current destruction of our planet. Think about other people, think about climate change, live a mindful life that recognizes the impact of your decisions and actions.”


As stated in Henry David Thoreau’s dictum: “In wildness is the salvation of the world.”


For the last five years I have split my life between research projects in the Amathole Mountains of the Eastern Cape (South Africa) and the Okavango Delta (Botswana). In the Amatholes, we study the Critically Endangered Cape parrot and the degraded Afromontane mistbelt forest patches they depend upon. In the Okavango, on the other hand, we study the abundant and widespread Meyer’s parrot that frequents most of the remaining wilderness areas in subtropical Africa. Now the comparison between Vundumtiki Island, our primary Meyer’s parrot research site, and the remote Amathole Mountains, our research site for the Cape Parrot Project, drives home the realization that “wilderness” is fragile and that once the fundamentals that support an ecosystem have been drained, dammed, broken, burnt, cut, managed or fenced, there is no going back. Small pieces of that ecosystem can be “restored” through constant management, but an ecological balance that took eternity to evolve cannot be recreated. It will forever be our responsibility to manage altered, degraded landscapes… As a scientist and conservationist, I know that we are only just starting to acquire the necessary knowledge and tools to do this. We are in a race against time, economics, and booming population numbers. We need to establish a “World Environmental Organization (WEO)” financed by the United Nations and World Bank that is on a par with the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Trade Organization (WTO). The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) simply does not have the resources to deal with the scope of the global environmental issues we face today.


Steve Boyes
Meyer's parrot in the Okavango Delta calling for the preservation of wilderness and the conservation of wild African bush. This is their home and always will be until the end... In the Meyer's Parrot Project and Okavango Wetland Birds Survey we only observe and record data for scientific research. In the Amathole Mountains, however, we cross the line and get actively involved in conserving, rehabilitating and managing this ecosystem to stimulate positive change for the threatened species that depend on it. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
There are less than 1,000 Critically Endangered Cape Parrots left in the wild due to the destruction of the Afromontane forest patches that they depended upon. (Steve Boyes)
LandSat 1979
Satellite image of the Okavango Delta during the peak of the 1979 flood. This amazing ecosystem is visible from space and should be declared as a World Heritage Site. The Okavango Delta is one of the last remaining pristine wilderness areas in southern Africa or the world for that matter, as for the most part the system has remained unmanaged, unfenced and free of human encroachment in recent times. The delta is Africa’s greatest wetland wilderness and provides for spiritual renewal and the opportunity to be immersed in something completely natural. The system includes 18000-square-kilometres of permanent swamp, floodplains, woodland, riverine forest, grassland, salt pans, islands, channels, and water. This patchwork mosaic of habitats and niches has provided for the rich diversity of plant, mammal, reptile, amphibian and bird species within the system, making this the jewel of Botswana’s wildlife resource. This vast ecosystem functions as an organism, regulating and maintaining itself, maturing and changing - evolving with the unpredictability and creativity of a conscious being. When you open yourself to this you begin to see and hear that this place is heaving, beating, calling and celebrating life – an abundance of life and spontaneity in this far away place. Complex, awe-inspiring scenes that we cannot fully comprehend baffle us. The sudden and coordinated arrival and departure of hundreds of pelicans on one day and their sudden departure the next, the synchronised arrival of migrant bird species after the first rain. The overnight birth of thousands of impala, zebra and wildebeest. The swirling, diving, thundering flocks of millions upon millions of quelea birds. The synchronized flight of millions of winged termites on a wet full moon, off to pair up near moonlit pools. The thousands of palm swifts that follow violent thunderstorms in the afternoons. This powerful place takes us back 100,000 years to a time when we fitted in, and that is exactly what you feel for the first when you visit a wilderness area... you fit in... (LandSat 1979)
Steve Boyes
Hogsback Village from atop Hogsback Mountain in the Amathole Mountains (Eastern Cape, South Africa). It is time for us to start giving back to these forests by planting indigenous trees and halting all further felling of large hardwoods. In the Amathole Mountains, we have a shattered landscape, almost completely altered, managed, fenced and harvested by over 200 years of colonization, proliterarianization, and industrialization. In 1854, the last lioness was shot in Cathcart, shortly after that the last of the great herds of buffalo and eland had been exterminated for fear of infecting cattle, then went the hippo and elephants, followed by the extinction of the Cape warthog... and so it goes on. The species that could retreat into the remaining Afromontane forest "refugia" in the high mountains did so, as they have done for millions of years during climatic oscillations and natural disasters. This was, however, not enough of a safe haven for the Cape leopard that went extinct sometime in the last 30 years. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
The backbone of these Afromontane forests were the majestic yellowwood trees that towered up to 150 feet above the forest floor, thousands upon thousands of them dominating the forest canopy, with many 1,000 year old "lords of the forest" emerging above the canopy. These ancient, emergent yellowwoods act like coral reefs attracting birds from through the area to bask in the morning sun, look for predators, feed on the abundant fruit, roost in safety high above the under-storey, and spend time with these "beings of the ages". Today, there are just two "lords of the forest" over 1,000 years old remaining in these forests after harvesting contractors removed almost all the large hardwoods from these forests to supply high demand during the World Wars and the massive railway developments in the 1800s. For example, one sleeper company in King William's Town produced over 4,200,000 railway sleepers in less than a decade. Conservative estimates, based on several reports and ledgers from the time, put this at 50-75,000 yellowwood trees over the age of 200 years old. Over a crucial 100 year period, we destroyed this forest ecosystem. Today, these degraded forest patches are dominated by invasive species from Australia, Europe and the Americas. Most endemic specie have disappeared or are endangered. Cape parrots have had to re-invent themselves by adopting over 20 new food resources into their diet and almost completely giving up on the indigenous forests they evolved to be so successful in. When I am walking in these forests and the surrounding Afro-alpine grasslands, or swimming in one of the many rivers, I cannot help but feel a heavy sense of loss and constantly try and picture the previous grandeur of this place. (Steve Boyes)


Thousands of years after the human species is gone a new “wilderness” WILL rejuvenate this planet. As long as we are here, we must know that, if we do not save our last-remaining wilderness areas, on land and in our seas and oceans, we are doomed.


     “Our generation will see the last wilderness areas (like the Okavango Delta) lost to development, booming populations and managing hand of man within the next 10-15 years.”


In 2025, global population levels will be nearing 9 billion, and by 2050 population levels will be so high that there is no way that existing natural resources could supply demand. All the mathematical models developed to predict natural resource use based on current consumption and development patterns across the globe demonstrate an impossible future for human beings and our only planet within the next 50 years.


     “If we do not accept this “inconvenient truth”, “wilderness” will disappear before many of us ever knew it. We need to collectively decide to live with less and share more with each other and the natural world … In “wildness” will be the salvation of us all”

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Steve Boyes
Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.