Tsodilo: Mining Between 2 World Heritage Sites?

On three occasions between 12th and 15th September 2013, the 2013 Okavango Wetland Bird Survey expedition team witnessed a SPECTREM2000 fixed wing aircraft flying very low over one of the remotest wilderness areas in southern Africa with magnetometers and sensors deployed. This aircraft was over 100 kilometres from the iron ore formation being explored by Tsodilo Resources Limited between Shakawe and Nxamasere in the northern-most part of the panhandle. The expedition was in one of the remotest, most inaccessible places along the research transect when we first saw this aircraft. It may have just been flying back to Maun for re-fuelling, but the low altitude and deployed magnetic receiver coil indicated an active survey underway. We are awaiting further information from Tsodilo Resources. What was this highly-specialized aircraft surveying on the border of the Moremi Game Reserve in the middle of the Okavango Delta?

Area in which the SPECTREM2000 fixed wing aircraft was sighted relative to the Xaudum Iron Ore Formation Project. (LandSat 2000 / Steve Boyes)
Screenshot from http://intotheokavango.org/ that shows the area in which the fixed wing aircraft towing a magnetometer was seen. (Office for Creative Rsearch / Wild Bird Trust)
Screenshot from http://intotheokavango.org/ that shows the area in which the fixed wing aircraft towing a magnetometer was seen. (Office for Creative Rsearch / Wild Bird Trust)

Tsodilo Resources released a press release on Wednesday (27th November 2013) announcing that “a major airborne survey collecting electromagnetic, magnetic and radiometric data (for radioactive minerals exploration)” had been completed by the Company’s joint venture partner, First Quantum Minerals, using Spectrem Air Ltd. and Xcalibur Airborne Geophysics. Tsodilo Resources owns the Xaudum Iron Formation Project, which prospects a massive magnetite banded ironstone formation associated with the Xaudum Magnetic Anomaly. This Neoproterozoic, banded magnetite iron ore prospect takes its name from the Xaudum River that runs into and back from the “panhandle” of the Okavango Delta. The Xaudum Iron Project is located within two base metal prospecting licenses (PL 386/2008 and PL 387/2008) covering an area of 1534.9 square kilometres. All press releases on the Tsodilo Resources website indicate that exploration is going well and this iron ore body is most likely worth mining…

Should we be even thinking about mining iron ore directly adjacent to one of Africa’s premier wilderness areas? Especially considering that the Okavango Delta (Botswana) is just about to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Listing…? Tsodilo Resources Limited is prospecting for iron ore and radioactive minerals on the Xaudum River, which flows into and washes back from the Okavango Delta. Named after Botswana’s first and only World Heritage Site, the Tsodilo Hills, a unique record of human settlement over many millennia that has over 4,500 rock paintings, Tsodilo Resources want to mine iron ore along the extremely sensitive “panhandle” of the Okavango Delta. This mining development is a clear threat to future of the Okavango Delta and the region. Social and Environmental Impact Assessments (SEIAs) need to be thorough if the decision is ever taken to mine this valuable ore body.

Eyewitness account of the SPECTREM2000 fixed wing aircraft flying over:

“We were one day into a six day push through shallow channels, papyrus, reedbeds and dry, open floodplains when we saw this unique aircraft above us. Our research had slowed down and moral was low. We had never tried to “pole” our dug-out canoes or “mokoros” across the Okavango Delta via the Mombo area at this time of year. As anticipated, we discovered it to be almost impossible and spent most of our time out of our mokoros and lost… There was simply no water a few hours after leaving the main channel after Jedibe Village and our traditional route was made impassable. The next week was among the hardest any of us had ever endured with hours and hours of painful, frustrating portages and dragging in knee-deep mud and aquatic vegetation. The closer we got to our target, the Mombo wilderness in the centre of the Okavango Delta, the more our days descended into a timeless twilight. We could not tell the difference between early morning and midday. Most of the floodwaters had gone and the vast floodplains of “grey peat ash” and islands were all dry and exposed to the seasonal winds howling up from the South-East. The grey ashy clouds hovered over us like a transparent roof, blocking out the sun and making conditions uncomfortably humid, stuffy and hot. We did not expect to see what looked like a spy plane and sounded like a spaceship…

In these bizarre other worldly conditions, as tired as any of us had ever been in our lives, we heard an aircraft approaching low in this remote, inaccessible wilderness. Suddenly it emerged from the smoky haze towing a “bird” or magnetic receiver coil that looked more like a World War II bomb. We all stopped our toil to look in wonder at this oddity in the middle of nowhere. On the second day, we heard the aircraft coming again at around 9am and got the camera out. This is the footage we captured. This time the SPECTREM2000 fixed wing aircraft was not towing the “bird”. We saw the aircraft again the next day (15th September) for the last time.”

Diagram of the SPECTREM2000 fixed wing aircraft (converted DC-3) with the magnetometers deployed to survey the slightest changes in magnetic field and much else. (Spectrem Air Limited / www.spectrem.co.za)
Diagram of the SPECTREM2000 fixed wing aircraft (converted DC-3) with the magnetometers deployed to survey the slightest changes in magnetic field and much else. (Spectrem Air Limited / www.spectrem.co.za)

In June 2013, I interviewed village elders from Jedibe and Seronga and both independently of each other related stories of massive boulders in the middle of the Okavango Delta near Madinari Island. They had both seen the rocks in their youth when out poaching lechwe with their fathers, saying that the rocks were out of the water then, but are now submerged. It had been one of our 2013 expedition objectives to find these rocks and document them for science, but unfortunately the extreme conditions, lengthy diversions due to blockages and lack of water, and time stress of dwindling food supplies kept us from delaying long enough to go to the area described by the elders. This, almost mythical, rock formation could be an extension of the iron ore formation being explored?

Series of photographs of the Spectrem 2000 fixed wing aircraft (Douglas BT-67 Turbo-67 (DC-3)) on the airstrip at Maun Airport to the South-East of the Okavango Delta in September 2013. Notice the receiver coil and magnetic receiver seen deployed by the expedition team.


We have made inquiries with Tsodilo Resources Limited about survey work and research being undertaken by this specialized aircraft with advanced remote sensing technology onboard. Please provide any additional information you may have on the airborne prospecting for minerals being undertaken in or near protected areas across Africa.

Please submit your opinions on mining exploration in and near one of the most important wilderness areas left on earth. Do we really need to know what is under this wild delta and soon-to-be UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
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.