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Back from the Field: The Okavango Wilderness Project Team Wraps Up Their 2019 Expedition

The Okavango Wilderness Project team recently returned from the field and concluded their 2019 expedition. We caught up with the team to learn more about what they were doing and their latest observations.

The Okavango Wilderness Project team recently returned from the field and concluded their 2019 expedition. We caught up with the team to learn more about what they were doing and their latest observations.

What were the goals of your expedition this time? 

Steve Boyes (SB): The original objective of the 2019 expedition was to complete detailed biodiversity and environmental surveys along all major channel systems in the Okavango Delta from June to October. However, by mid-January 2019, we knew that the annual flood was not going to be big enough to flood the whole delta. So, we developed an expedition plan to gather as much baseline biodiversity, environmental, and social data as possible along the Nqoga, Maunchira, Gomoti, Khwai, Mboroga, and Santantadibe channel systems, using boat, vehicle, or mokoro (traditional canoe).

Five hippos peek out of the water with just the top halves of their faces in a river.
Photo Credit: Götz Neef

Hippos were a common sight on this year’s expedition. The team spotted 547 along this year’s new route, compared to just 276 seen last year using the transect route through the central delta. The hippos were not shy and many sightings resulted in close encounters, including two instances where hippos charged the mekoro with one resulting in Water Setlabosha being tossed out of the mokoro.   

What was one thing you hoped to find or learn in the field? Did you learn about or find it? 

Kai Collins (KC): We are experiencing one of the driest years in southern Africa in decades as a result of two years of an El Niño weather phenomenon, which caused reduced rainfall over southern Africa. This year represented a unique opportunity to collect baseline data on how species and ecosystems respond to an extreme drought year accompanied by very high temperatures, leading to a much higher fire frequency and hotter fires, etc. This could represent a “new normal” if climate change impacts continue without any mitigation. 

What was your route? How many kilometers did you traverse? What were the different methods of transportation (mokoro, foot, helicopter, etc.)?

Götz Neef (GN): The routes covered the Okavango Delta from north to south as well as two new transit routes to the east that we had not yet completed.

  • The main mekoro transect covered 308 km over 27 days.
  • The boat transects and resupplies covered 786 km over 11 days.
  • Vehicles were used to get to additional water sampling points looking at water quality and also recording biodiversity along certain rivers covering an additional 190 km.

What is something you brought on an expedition that was a must-have? 

Gobonamang Kgeto (GB): My fishing rod is always with me on every expedition. Sometimes our days are so full that we try and catch fish for dinner while we are paddling en route to our camp for the day. When we have an easier day on the river, I am able to relax and enjoy fishing with my reliable fishing rod. 

A lone African wild dog stands in prairie grass.
Photo Credit: Götz Neef

SB: A cap, which I forgot and had to borrow (permanently) from Götz Neef. Götz managed to capture just one curious African wild dog of the five adults and six pups spotted together by the team. 

This year also marked the first time the team saw sable antelope [they spotted 21], and roan antelope [they spotted 2] during their transect. In addition, they also saw four Pel’s fishing owls and a female lion. 

The Okavango Wilderness Project has been surveying and collecting scientific data on the Okavango river system to better understand the threats facing this important ecosystem. Learn more about the project and how you can help.

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