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Warning From Past / Hope For The Future

UNESCO World Heritage Listing for the Okavango Delta would be a massive achievement for Botswana, as well as all the NGOs and individuals that have invested their time in this initiative over the last decade. Most importantly, declaration will highlight the importance of preserving the vast Angolan catchment in its current state, celebrating the Kavango...

UNESCO World Heritage Listing for the Okavango Delta would be a massive achievement for Botswana, as well as all the NGOs and individuals that have invested their time in this initiative over the last decade. Most importantly, declaration will highlight the importance of preserving the vast Angolan catchment in its current state, celebrating the Kavango Basin as the largest, undeveloped river catchment remaining on earth. Legendary rivers like the mighty Nile, Colorado, Indus, Rio Grande, Yellow, Murray and Amu Darya have all dried up from overuse and mismanagement. The Okavango River and its remote, unchanged catchment are one of our last chances to save a vast living landscape from the inevitable march of economic development and population growth.

We have learnt the same lesson over and over, and now, for the first time on this scale, need to value ecosystem services, biodiversity and the spiritual value of our only planet’s last true wilderness areas over mining, human settlement, food security in cities, water security for urban areas, industry and agriculture, and increasing GDP. We cannot make this choice on behalf of the Angolan and Namibian governments, but we can rally world leaders in support of this outcome. There is amazing work being done by OKACOM, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TFCA), and Future Okavango. Local operators like Okavango Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation are proving the ecotourism development model and demonstrating that the safari industry can generate significant income for local communities and conservation authorities. We need to bring together all of these stakeholders, communities, professionals and private individuals in a documentary film that speaks to the massive effort by hundreds of people to protect the “jewel of the Kalahari”. Imagine a place on earth that could have been saved…

Google Earth 2012
Okavango Delta and the entire Okavango River up to Huambo, the source of the Okavango River. Note the two sub-catchments in what is one of the remotest regions of southern Africa, inaccessible by road, aircraft or boat. It is going to take a multi-national effort to conserve one of the world’s last functioning wilderness areas. (Google Earth 2012)

If we lose the amazing Okavango wilderness, it will be forever…

The sensitive alluvial fan into which it flows will collapse along with its abundant wildlife. We have opportunity right now in the Okavango Wilderness Project to save Africa’s last truly wild river. A river that miraculously empties into the world’s largest inland delta in the middle of the Kalahari Sand Basin, the longest continuous piece of sand on earth. This is the home of the largest-remaining elephant population, one of the last three lion populations over 2,000 cats, and an oasis for over 530 bird species, 155 reptiles, 160 mammals, 35 amphibians, 80 fish, and countless unnamed invertebrate. An amazing 134 families, including 530 genera and over 1,300 plant species found in the Okavango Delta so far. Truly extraordinary! All in the middle of the dry Kalahari and completely dependent on floodwaters coming down from Angola in winter. The time is now to act in support of the preservation of the Okavango Delta, as rapid economic and infrastructural development, fuelled by oil revenue and China’s support, is coming to Angola. The Okavango’s catchment is already coming under increasing pressure from irrigation schemes for huge agricultural developments. Mining has become a significant threat to the river and delta, surveys and exploration yields potentially lucrative mineral resources. In addition, Botswana, Angola and Namibia are very dry countries and the waters of the Okavango need to be considered as part of their food and water security moving forward.

Steve Boyes
The abundance of life on a floodplain in the center of the Okavango Delta. Wildlife in the Moremi Game Reserve has not been hunted for generations and have always been seen as the “royal hunting grounds”. What will a ban on all commercial hunting achieve? (Steve Boyes)

The ISS-9 Space Station crew obtained this high-resolution image of the Colorado River Delta on June 2, 2004. Image courtesy of NASA

Unheeded warnings from the past…

Most of the Colorado River’s flow used to reach the delta, creating an intricate system of estuarial wetlands and floodplains maintained by a complex cycle of flooding, siltation, and nutrient flow.

In his A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), the esteemed wilderness thinker and conservationist, describes the Colorado River Delta as it existed in 1922: “On the map the Delta was bisected by the river, but in fact the river was nowhere and everywhere, for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf.”

Along with other early explorers he recorded jaguar, beaver, deer, coyote, an abundance of birdlife, fish, and a wide variety of estuarine fauna and flora. The abundance of life was clear to see and local First Nation peoples lived off the fertile land. What was previously one of the world’s largest desert estuaries has been dried up by dams and development. Today, the Colorado River does not make it to the sea. This high price of rapid development and economic prosperity in the United States is a clear warning to the developing world. China and India are on similar paths focussed on economic growth and urbanisation. Africa is rising from a long history of exploitation and will be looking to catch up with the rest of the world…

See these interesting facts about the African continent:

The fate of the Colorado Delta and the passenger pigeon is now gathering like a storm cloud over Africa with new mining and agricultural developments permanently altering landscapes, catchments, coastlines and even mountain ranges. High urbanisation rates and poor living conditions, outdated or simply destructive land management practices (e.g. slash-and-burn agriculture), and ineffective Social and Environmental Impact Assessments (SEIA) for developments like mines and irrigation schemes are conspiring to ruin Africa’s magnificent dune and hardwood forests, wetlands, estuaries, rivers, lakes, mountains, grasslands, coastlines, and, once fertile, agricultural lands. Erosion, deforestation, drought, illegal mining, poaching, wildlife trade and poverty have never been worse on the continent. We lost almost 1,000 rhino to poachers supplying the lucrative trade in their horns and over 25,000 African elephant were massacred for their ivory. Millions upon millions of hardwood logs are being exported from ports throughout central and West Africa. This excerpt from the Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of Wangari Maathai on the 10th December 2004 speaks to our current dilemma on the African continent:

“I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents. Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.”

"Okavango leopard", by guide Lee Whittam. “This was one of the many top-quality leopard sightings we had on a recent ten day safari to Botswana. This female in picture was preparing for her evening hunt, we had followed her for most of the afternoon when she chose this sausage tree to climb and get a better view of the area. We made the most of the colourful back ground to get a great silhouette of her before she dropped to the ground. (Lee Whittam /
“Okavango leopard” These lone predators are common sighting in the Okavango Delta. (Lee Whittam /

People and development are coming…

The Kavango Basin has become a focus point for global efforts to maximise access to water resources for remote, rural communities. Some of the best minds are planning canals and pump schemes to irrigate thousands of hectares of arid farmland along the Okavango River. Weirs and dams are scheduled to block Kalahari sand and sediment, as water flow gets slowed and diverted during the annual floods. Rice fields, sugar cane and other agricultural developments are going increase nitrogen levels in the Okavango’s waters for the first time in millennia, causing choking, sun-blocking blooms of papyrus and invasive Salvinia weed. The pristine Okavango Delta could change from a flowing, dynamic water delivery system to a choked, dying pestilential swamp in a matter of years. Here are some examples of developments that could threaten the persistence of the Okavango Delta in its current state:

LandSat 1979
Satellite image from 1979 using LandSat. It is exciting to think what kind of delta existed when this satellite image was taken. A vast, untouched wilderness unlike today when have to use mokoros to find inaccessible wilderness. (LandSat 1979)

There is too much at stake for Botswana to consider mining or water extraction or support Namibia and Angola in the development of irrigation schemes upstream. Botswana knows there is opportunity in ecotourism development. Namibia has been a global destination for decades and has well-developed tourism infrastructure. The government and people of Angola, however need to be helped every step of the way. Decades of border wars and civil war followed hundreds of years of slave trade and exploitation, leaving Angola defensive and wary of foreign intervention. China has become their main development partner and is literally building new cities and infrastructure. The development path that China will most likely encourage will not accommodate biodiversity conservation or the concept of wilderness preservation. We need to deliver this message and proactively work at making it a reality. Initiatives like the recent technical symposium as part of the KAZA-TFCA that provided practical solutions to the conservation and tourism barriers in the Angolan catchment, as well as the “KAZA UNIVISA” that will allow tourists entry into the region with a single visa, must be supported by additional funding, international support and legal aid to drive them towards the desired outcome – revenue for Angola from a growing ecotourism industry and the establishment of protected areas that cover more than half of the catchment. There are currently only two “partial reserves” in the Angolan catchment, so we urgently need to survey, explore and establish new protected areas in what is now effectively “no-man’s land”.

Giraffe reflections by Mario Moreno. Photographed in Moremi, Okavango, Botswana. (
Giraffe reflections by Mario Moreno. Photographed in Moremi, Okavango, Botswana. (
"Lily reflection" The perfect form and beauty of the day lily is a wonderful metaphor for the pristine Okavango Delta. (Andrew Schoeman /
“Lily reflection” The perfect form and beauty of the day lily is a wonderful metaphor for the pristine Okavango Delta. (Andrew Schoeman /

Hope for the future? Will Okavango Delta be Africa’s next World Heritage Site?

There is hope! The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Field Evaluation Team for the nomination of the Okavango Delta for UNESCO World Heritage Listing visited Botswana from 14-19 October. Dr Roger Porter, the IUCN-assigned mentor for the Botswana World Heritage Committee, said the field evaluation team was very impressed by the comparison with other large inland deltas and swamps, as well as the existing tri-nation (Botswana/Namibia/Angola) agreements and forums (e.g. OKACOM and KAZA-TFCA) in place to coordinate the future management of the Kavango Basin. This mission was deemed a success, but, after a strict evaluation, there was the inevitable request for supplementary information. The evaluation team asked for more information on eight critical issues, including mining development, minority people’s rights, available resources, anti-poaching, and future water usage upstream. The IUCN World Heritage Panel meets next week on the 2nd December, after which the Botswana World Heritage Committee and Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism (MEWT) will receive feedback on any additional supplementary information that is needed prior to the vote at the next session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in June next year. So, yes, we will not stop until the Okavango Delta is Africa’s newest World Heritage Site.

36th Session of World Heritage Committee in St Petersburg, Russian Federation (30/06/2012) © UNESCO
36th Session of World Heritage Committee in St Petersburg, Russian Federation (30/06/2012) © UNESCO
Brendon Cremer /
“Locked on”, by guide Brendon Cremer. Taken at Wilderness Safaris Duba Plains in the Okavango, Botswana. “A lioness chases and leaps on a buffalo cow after a 2 hour long stalk. Unfortunately for the lioness the buffalo got away.” (Brendon Cremer /

A push in the right direction…

It has been extremely difficult to get to this point and the spectre of greed, vested interests and inadequate capacity has dogged the campaign for UNESCO World Heritage Listing. The IUCN will expect new management systems, boards and authorities to be put in place. Listing is a commitment to the rest of the world to protect a site of global heritage value and importance forever, restricting natural resource use, development and human settlement if it threatens what is being protected. The Okavango Wilderness Project and the film, Okavango, will be the necessary catalyst to make listing happen for not only the Okavango Delta, but the entire Kavango Basin. Initiatives like OKACOM, the KAZA-TFCA and Future Okavango, as well as the work of organisations like Peace ParksBirdLife BotswanaWild Bird TrustKalahari Conservation SocietySouthern African Regional Environmental Programme, and Botswana Tourism Organisation in the Okavango Delta, must be celebrated and promoted as widely as possible. These are forward-thinking initiatives that need exposure and support.

Mario Moreno /
Sunset stalker. “This lioness was stalking a group of lechwe on the other side of a flooded area in the Okavango Delta in Moremi National Park, Botswana.” (Mario Moreno /

The Okavango Wilderness Project has two primary objectives:

(1) Undertake the most in-depth biodiversity survey and habitat quality assessment ever undertaken down the entire 1,000 mile length of the Okavango River (down the Cuito Subcatchment); and

(2) Produce a feature documentary film about the human experience in this vast, untouched wilderness as our research team overcome chance and probability to survive unassisted for two months on this wild, unexplored river.

Sparring lechwe, by guide Brendon Cremer. A couple of Lechwe spar in the early morning as the sun rises, the dust from the rest of the herd as they move back towards the marsh adding some great mood and drama to the image. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (Brendon Cremer /
“Sparring lechwe” The golden Okavango light of the early morning speaks to the soul… (Brendon Cremer /

Each person on our expedition team, Dr Karen Ross, Chris Boyes, Dr Kirsten Wimberger, Dr John Mendelsohn, John Hilton, Gobonamang Kgeto and I, is a unique mix of scientist and explorer and all have committed themselves to preserving the Okavango Delta and the awe-inspiring river that supplies it. To achieve our conservation goals for the Kavango basin we need to fundamentally change people’s perceptions and generate momentum around a local and international push to protect this vast, untouched wilderness. We are going to involve top experts during the eight week, 1,000 mile expedition down the Cuito Subcatchment into the Okavango River and across the delta  in traditional dug-out canoes or “mokoros”. As in all our expeditions, we will be joined by four baYei men from the Okavango Delta, who will “pole” with us and meet the communities upstream that hold the fate of their “Mother Okavango” in their hands. The Okavango Wilderness Project will yield a comprehensive, open access data on the wildlife densities, habitat types, water quality, climatic conditions and human disturbance. By 2015, when we embark on this once-in-a-lifetime expedition, we would have advanced the IntoTheOkavango.Org web-portal even further and established a network of researchers and experts to analyse the data in real-time while we are still on expedition. See:

The film, Okavango, is the foundation of the project and will showcase the intrinsic value of the Kavango Basin by sharing an intimate view into the human experience in the wilderness, highlighting how important these wild places are to our future on this living planet. Our subsequent campaign will include public presentations and meetings with every level of government in Botswana, Namibia and Angola. More than the oil revenue, democracy or economic growth, the “Great Work” of the peoples of these three countries when looking back in 100 years time will be the protection of this grand, living wilderness and the spark of hope that we could do this elsewhere on this scale.

Brendon Cremer /
Tsessebe in the mist, by guide Brendon Cremer. Photographed at Wilderness Safaris Duba Plains in the Okavango, Botswana. Early mornings on the plains in the cooler months often produce some great opportunities to photograph animals in the mist. The tsessebe is consider by many to be the fastest antelope in Africa (Brendon Cremer /

Is a feature film going make a difference? 

Officials at the UNESCO have undertaken to support the film, Okavango, and subsequent campaign to achieve World Heritage Listing for the Okavango Delta and then establish a multi-national UNESCO World Heritage Site that will drive forward the important work done by OKACOM, the KAZA-TFCAFuture Okavango, the Wild Bird Trust, and many others. UNESCO have made it clear that this collaborative initiative to save the Kavango Basin from the inevitable needs a ground-breaking documentary film by passionate conservationists that will inspire people around the world to help us better protect this extraordinary “river of life” and “elephant oasis” in the middle of the Kalahari. In the most basic terms, we need to convince a world of people to protect the idea of a place that we cannot afford to lose. Most of them will never go there, but still need to value the fact that places like that still exist. The main intention of the film is to motivate, amaze, bring together, inspire, and give voice to the people working to save the Okavango Delta. Inspiration is a powerful thing and shifting the global collective consciousness to mobilise efforts to save our last truly wild places on earth needs art and beauty – we need to make this film. It is almost counter-intuitive, but, after a decade of trying to stimulate positive change for the Okavango through existing channels, we now know that making this film about a life-changing spiritual journey down Africa’s wildest river to capture baseline scientific data on the way this river is meant to be is absolutely essential and will create the momentum we need to achieve our goals.

Steve Boyes
Migrating elephants spread across the fertile floodplains of Mombo where some of the world’s most pristine wilderness remains… (Steve Boyes)


Steve Boyes
The skies light up at sunrise on a cold Okavango winter morning when a distant front is rolling over high in the sky. The power of this place and the effect on us is hard to describe. (Steve Boyes)
The human experience in this wilderness is nothing short of exhilarating and life-giving, showing us our path to a better future. (Paul Steyn)
The human experience in this wilderness is nothing short of exhilarating and life-giving, showing us our path to a better future. (Paul Steyn)
Zebra dazzle at sunset, by guide Phill Steffny. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana (Phill Steffny Safaris)
Zebra dazzle at sunset, by guide Phill Steffny. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana (Phill Steffny Safaris)

We have procrastinated long enough!

Here at beginning of the 21st century, the advent of the Anthropocene, we are at the end of an epoch with the last wild places teetering on the brink of destruction. The last places on earth that can connect us to our primordial past are the last sanctuaries and refuges for the wildlife that once roamed free in the vast, impenetrable wildernesses that once covered our planet. There a lot still to save in Africa, but we need to act NOW… and heed the warning from a dry Colorado Delta to the developing world.

Aldo Leopold put forward that: “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow… Creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible.”

He was correct and his words echo an unheeded warning from the past… In the 20th century world powers opted for all out devastation with world wars and environmental degradation on an unrepeatable scale. Now in the 21st century we find ourselves with very few pristine wilderness areas that are large enough to guarantee their persistence into the future. Today, we are literally decades away from losing our last true wilderness areas to the gradual creep of economic development and population growth. Our feeble efforts to rehabilitate and restore natural ecosystems have proven Aldo Leopold was right. We are able to clean up and better manage degraded ecosystems, but these places will always be beholden unto us and rely on constant engineering and management. The “ecosystems” are as two-dimensional as the proposals and theory that created them. As a scientist, ecologist and conservation biologist I know that we are incapable of managing landscapes for diversity and will never be able to achieve the intricate balance that evolved through natural selection over millions of years. Yes, in geological time, over millions of years, the “wilderness” will prevail and reclaim this planet, but right now we are in danger of undermining the very balance that supports our sustained existence on this beautiful, perfectly-situated blue-and-green planet.

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)

In his “A Plea for Wilderness Hunting Grounds” (1925), Aldo Leopold, explains that: “Our (United States) remnants of wilderness will yield bigger values to the nation’s character and health than they will to its pocketbook, and to destroy them will be to admit that the latter are the only values that interest us.”

We still have opportunity to save the essence of that which is truly “wild” in the world’s last untouched wilderness areas, but we need to consciously make that decision now. Most remaining wildernesses are inhospitable frozen landscapes or dense, impenetrable jungle that has kept people away through inaccessibility and difficult living conditions. Some wilderness areas, the places that need to be saved right now, are living landscapes filled with water, food and the abundance of life. Places like parts of the Okavango Delta, Amazon, Western Ghats, Congo, Australian outback and our remaining remote, untouched reefs and marine ecosystems. These places are still there because the managing, changing, taming, destroying, mining, domesticating, and urbanising hand of 20th and 21st century human beings was not able to establish a foothold in these wildernesses before the first protected areas were declared around the world. Some have simply remained far away from cities, roads and development. Today, most protected areas and wild landscapes are “ring-fenced” by ecological degradation and development, while loggers, miners, builders and farmers explore and edge ever closer to the wild, untouched places we have not occupied yet and that are still representative of a time when we lived in harmony with nature. With all of this destruction already done, we need to hold onto the belief that we can rescue and restore some of these grand, diverse biological communities, while saving those that remain…. Please support us in our efforts to bring about this fundamental paradigm change. Please share this blog post with your friends….

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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.