Dr Karen Ross: Champion of the Okavango Delta!

Karen Ross

A childhood spent in Kenya fostered in Karen Ross a love of Africa and a passion for nature. She has a doctorate in wildlife ecology from Edinburgh University and has spent most of her life working in Africa, mainly in the Okavango Delta. Author of Okavango: Jewel of the Kalahari, her book was first published as a companion to a BBC 3-part documentary series of the same title, produced by Partridge Films and winner of the 1988 Golden Panda, for which she was researcher and writer.

Staying on in Botswana, she founded Conservation International’s programme there in 1992 and directed it for ten years, living under canvas and raising her daughter Lena Rae near the frontier town of Maun. For 25 years Karen pursued conservation goals in the Okavango Delta and was part of numerous critical conservation activities in Botswana. These included protection of the Okavango Delta from mining threats; from upstream water withdrawals from Namibia; and taking the lead in the dialogue against cattle veterinary fences build in the wilderness surrounding the delta.

For the past five years she represented the Wilderness/WILD Foundations and Deutsche Umwelthilfe (BMZ) in collaborating with the government of Botswana, Okavango communities and numerous stakeholders to motivate for the listing of the Okavango Delta as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Okavango Delta Nomination Dossier was submitted to UNESCO in 2012.

Dr Karen Ross, now the Program Design Director at African Wildlife Foundation, updates us on progress with UNESCO World Heritage Listing:

“These are exciting times for the Okavango Delta, and I am thankful to Steve Boyes and Neil Gelinas for giving me this opportunity to give an update on progress and process of a vision to have this unique wetland listed as a World Heritage site. When this topic comes up, most people who have visited, studied or filmed the Okavango Delta say “surely it already is a listed site?” It is a remarkable thing that it is not. In fact, I remember well a day in Maun, the frontier town on the edge of the Delta, in 1989, when a delegation from the UNESCO World Heritage Center addressed a gathering to talk about the World Heritage Convention. At that time the delegation was talking to Botswana about becoming a State Party to the Convention, and at the meeting the talked about the Okavango Delta being worthy of listing. Amazing to think that was over 20 years ago!

Okavango Delta – a place of reflections... (Karen Ross)
Okavango Delta – a place of reflections… (Karen Ross)

About 6 years ago the idea was raised again, this time by organisations that are concerned about the long-term security of this unique inland delta. Being at the lower end of the Okavango River Basin, it is at the mercy of upstream riparian nations – Namibia and Angola. In the 28 years I was based in Maun as a conservationist, there have numerous times when the integrity of the Delta was at threat. In 1992 a De Beers initiative to dredge the Okavango for 50 kilometers, to channel water to a distant diamond mine, was only prevented 3 days before works were due to begin, amidst uproar from local communities and onlookers internationally. Some years later another threat emerged when Namibia was in the grips of a long drought, and set plans in motion to take Okavango water by pipeline to their capital Windhoek, and to irrigate the surrounding desert. This too was averted at the last moment. It was clear that such threats to the integrity of one of the world’s most pristine wetlands would always loom. Only 30% of the Okavango Delta has Protected Area designation (Moremi Game Reserve), and although an agreement between the three riparian nations is being set in motion through a treaty called OKACOM, the Delta clearly needs an extra layer of protection and this is arguably best achieved through World Heritage designation. This UN Convention is party to international law, and has more State signatories that any other UN Convention, now numbering 189 States. If you take on a World Heritage Site you take on all Parties, which is virtually the world!

Site Committee getting a ride with the Botswana Defense Force. (Karen Ross)
Site Committee getting a ride with the Botswana Defense Force. (Karen Ross)

But achieving such status is a long and complex road, as we were to discover. First the proposed site needs to be nominated by the State, so political will and buy-in is a pre-requisite.  Also, it must be already listed on the nation’s World Heritage Tentative list. The Okavango Delta was not even on the list! So back in 2007 I worked with the Botswana’s Department of Museums, the authority for Heritage sites, NGOs and Okavango stakeholders as an employee of the Wilderness Foundation, later joined by Deutsche Umwelthilfe. The fist task for Botswana was to collaboratively re-visit the Tentative List, and after years of meetings and discussion a new list was finalised in 2009. For the first time the Okavango Delta was on the list! Even more exciting, the government was so enthusiastic by now that the Delta was chosen as the first of 9 new sites to work on. And indeed much work was entailed. An Okavango Delta Site Selection Committee was formed, consisting of 10 government departments, as well as NGOs and the University of Botswana. This Committee met frequently and collaborated to move the process forwards. There were numerous meetings to consult with communities, stakeholders and upstream nations. There was much discussion and debate. What were the benefits? What were the disadvantages? Everyone needed a say. But over a four-year process of discussion and meetings it became certain that there was an almost universal wish for the Okavango delta to have this converted designation. Further research and writing was needed to prepare the Dossier for UNESCO, and also for agreement to be reached on where the boundaries of the Cores Site and Buffer zone were to be placed.

Site Selection Committee in the Okavango Delta with Dr Roger Porter. (Karen Ross)
Site Selection Committee in the Okavango Delta with Dr Roger Porter. (Karen Ross)

Museums worked hard to arrange meetings, and frequently gather the Site Selection Committee together. I have to say I have never been part of such a committed group – no one ever missed a meeting! We had field trips into the Delta to view special sites, and meet remote communities living in the heart of the Delta. Our vehicles got drowned in rivers, stuck in mud, and sometimes we had to walk miles through the bush to get help.  Once, on a field trip to the Panhandle in the north of the Delta we were gallantly assisted with boats from the Botswana Defense Force!

It was fun and it was exhausting, but spirits did not flag. Towards the end of this 3 year mission the African World Heritage Foundation provided a ‘mentor’ Roger Porter, who had spear-headed the listing of two of South Africa’s World Heritage sites and is a world authority. We needed his help! Below is a picture of Roger with members of the Okavango Site Selection Committee, on a field trip in the Delta. Thanks Team! Next week I will share with you where the process has reached.”

Learn more about our work on the Okavango Wilderness Project: 



Human Journey


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.