Meet the Rolex National Geographic Explorers of the Year: The Okavango Wilderness Project Team

The Okavango River Basin, which stretches across three countries, is one of the most biodiverse places in Africa. Its delta is home to the largest populations of elephants in the world, as well as iconic species like lions, zebras, and giraffes. The river system that feeds the delta provides near pristine water to about a million people in the region. However, due to decades of civil war in Angola, much of this landscape was left largely unsurveyed. As a result, the health of the ecosystem remained unknown.

That changed in 2015, when National Geographic Fellow and scientist Steve Boyes brought together an interdisciplinary team of scientists and explorers to form the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, which includes Angolan ichthyologist and National Geographic Explorer Adjany Costa and expert guide and poler Tumeletso “Water” Setlabosha. Over the past four years, the team has conducted comprehensive scientific surveys of the region. Their work has taken them to the sources of the three main rivers that feed the Okavango Delta and more than 4,000 miles along the rivers through Angola, Namibia, and Botswana all the way to the Okavango Delta. As the team has assessed the ecosystem, they’ve also connected with local communities and government leaders, who they’re now working with to protect Okavango River Basin for generations to come.

In honor of the scientific significance of their work and their commitment to a perpetual planet, the Okavango Wilderness Project Team received the 2019 Rolex National Geographic Explorers of the Year award at this year’s Explorers Festival. To capture and commemorate their work, National Geographic sent two separate photographers to cover the journey: Peter Muller and Cory Richards. They were able to show us the scale of the team and their work, as well as the vastness of the trek and the landscapes. Take a look at what they captured, and hear directly from the team.

What were the goals of the Okavango Wilderness Project?

Steve Boyes: It’s been a voyage of discovery. We had one goal in the beginning, which was to explore, understand, and to discover. And we’ve done very well in that regard. We’ve got probably somewhere in the region of 30 new species to science. We’ve got hundreds of species not known to be there [in Angola], so it’s, you know, high endemism. We found elephants. We found new populations of endangered species like cheetah and wild dog. We found the lions. We found the leopards and sable about 300 kilometers north of where they’re meant to be. And during the process of discovering these new things, about a landscape that no one really knew anything about, we found new opportunities, the potential for protected areas. The potential to work with these communities we’re starting to get to know, because they’re giving us the information we need around where these animals are and the value of this landscape.

Adjany, what was your role in this expedition?

Adjany Costa: What do I not do? On expeditions, apart from working with the fish and with the rest of the science team, I work with communities as well. So, I’m the main contact of interaction, to give them general concepts of conservation and how they can help us to protect this landscape. I also do the translations, if need be, during expeditions, outside expeditions.

It sounds like a daunting job being the contact with the communities. How do you go about that?

Adjany Costa: First of all is actually getting to know them. It’s getting to know what their history is, what their culture is, what their needs are. How do they interact with the environment? How deep is their connection with the environment? What do they perceive to be wrong or right? What has changed over the years before the war, during the war, after the war? What are their life perspectives? And from that one, it’s trying to find activities for adults that will make them understand. It’s a slow, slow process but it makes them understand that there might be more sustainable alternatives to their livelihoods, and that conservation can actually help improve their livelihoods. And on the other side is also working with the children, you know, telling stories, just chatting with them, teaching them about animals, showing them movies and things like that. Again, just to bring them some perspective of an education, which they don’t have.

Photo by Pete Muller. Adjany Costa collects plant and water samples near the source springs of the Cubango River in Angola.

Tumeletso, why do they call you “Water”?

Tumeletso “Water” Setlabosha: When I was fifteen years old my mother told me this story about her being pregnant with me. She was on her way back from the village to the farm where we lived. She had to walk through shallow water, about 40-50 centimeters deep, to get there. That’s where she started having contractions. Since she was too far away from the farm, that’s where I was born. When I heard that story, I changed my name to Water. Everybody calls me Water now. Even my mother now calls me that.

It’s very funny that you are called Water, because we are here because of the water.

Tumeletso “Water” Setlabosha: Exactly yes. When I meet someone, and I’ll say my name is Water, they say: “Oh yeah, very good name!”

Photo by Neil Gelinas. Tumeletso “Water” Setlabosha, a member of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, guides his mokoro through the Okavango Delta.

What is the water like here?

The water here is very clean. As soon as we start to our trip, you can see the bottom of the river. It has very white sand at the bottom so it makes for perfect water. Cold. I like this water.

Why is the delta special?

Tumeletso “Water” Setlabosha: I think the Delta is special because it brings opportunities for tourism. People come from all over the world to see these animals. We take them on our mokoros (canoes) and camp sometimes for 3-4 days. So the delta is very important for us in Botswana.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. You can find more information about the Okavango Wilderness Project at natgeo.org/okavango.

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