The National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (OWP) today launched its first expedition of 2017. Over the course of this month, the OWP team will document the biodiversity of the Cuito, Cuanavale, and Tchanssengwe source lakes in the Angolan highlands, part of the critical watershed that feeds Africa’s iconic Okavango River Basin. While this will be the team’s third visit to the source lakes, it marks OWP’s first underwater exploratory effort complemented by two Angolan-led terrestrial expeditions.
Over the past two years, OWP scientists and explorers have charted much of the expansive Okavango River Basin but always above water. During previous visits, they observed the clarity and pristine nature of the source lakes’ waters but noted a dearth of information about their depth, biodiversity and more. As a result, the team plans to conduct a series of dives to sample fish species at various depths while documenting the underwater ecosystem.
To better understand the local environment, the team will also explore the surrounding area by fat bike, deploying a network of 120 camera traps to gauge the density of resident mammals from leopards and cheetahs to African wild dogs. In addition, they will mount 360-degree cameras on their bikes to map this unchartered area for future study.
The third part of the expedition will involve surveys in 11 remote villages to document local knowledge of current and historic animal populations. The surveys of adults and children provide a way to engage the villagers using materials and exercises developed by National Geographic Education experts.
Said OWP Assistant Director Adjany Costa, one of the two Angolans leading the team: “This latest expedition demonstrates what National Geographic does best: combining unparalleled exploration and scientific research to inform the protection of wildlife and wild places. As an Angolan, I am particularly honored to be part of this effort and hope that one day more people will be able to witness our country’s majestic wilderness firsthand.”
The team first explored the Okavango River Basin source lakes in 2015. During that time, they documented the first comprehensive observations of wildlife in the area, including the presence of the endangered African wild dog, which was thought to have gone extinct locally. In 2016, the team surveyed and documented the sources of the Cuando River in southeastern Angola’s remote highlands as part of a larger effort to help protect this vital ecosystem and the myriad species living there.
This part of Angola is one of the last wild places on Earth. While the Okavango Delta is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the vital headwaters of the Okavango are not protected — and they are severely threatened by human encroachment, increased deforestation and development.
The Okavango Wilderness Project team is an interdisciplinary collaboration between local African researchers and experts and international colleagues and scientists. Together, they are surveying the area to record its extraordinary biodiversity and collect information on the health of the waters, joining with National Geographic filmmakers, photographers and writers to document the sights, sounds and progress along the way.
With the knowledge and imagery they gather, the OWP and the National Geographic Society aim to inform decision makers of the value of greater protection for the vital Okavango watershed and surrounding areas. For without it, the Delta and the amazing species living there are under threat.
Said National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary E. Knell: “The Okavango Wilderness Project exemplifies the mission, commitment and core of the National Geographic Society. By furthering our understanding of the wonders of this remarkable wilderness, we can help generate solutions for a healthier, more sustainable future not only for Angola and the larger region but for our increasingly interconnected world.”
Interested individuals are encouraged to follow the team during the 2017 Source Lake Expedition by visiting natgeo.org/okavango.