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Expedition Launched to Save Africa’s Largest Wetland

Protection for the headwaters of Okavango Delta is urgently needed, says leader of an unprecedented exploration of the river system that feeds it.

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The meandering Okavango River never reaches the sea. Instead it flows into a vast inland delta of the same name in Botswana that is home to a stunning array of wildlife. The river’s headwaters urgently need protection, says scientist Steve Boyes.


A multinational team of, scientists, filmmakers, and journalists arrived in a remote corner of Angola last week to begin an unprecedented, 1,000-mile-long expedition supported by the National Geographic Society.

Already, the expedition has garnered some of the most far-reaching attention you can get. On May 25, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti took a breathtaking photograph of the Okavango Delta system from the International Space Station and tweeted the team a message, “Wishing you luck.”

This journey of discovery will take members of the Okavango Wilderness Project down the entire length of the river system that is the lifeblood of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, recognized by UNESCO last June as the 1,000th World Heritage Site.

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During the next ten weeks, the team—led by National Geographic Explorer Steve Boyes, of the Wild Bird Trust and the University of Cape Town’s Percy Fitzpatrick Institute—will travel on foot and in dugout canoes called mokoros with the help of five expert indigenous Ba’Yei polers from Botswana.

They will gather information on everything from the animals, birds, fish and insects that inhabit the river system to the stories, livelihoods, and opinions of the people who depend on these waters.   

Here’s the catch, or one of them: Although the delta itself is protected, its vital headwaters, which begin in the highlands of Angola and converge on the border between and Angola and Namibia, are not.

A major reason is that part of the catchment—the Cuito River—is in the southeast of the Angola, an area still plagued by land mines from the country’s nearly three-decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002.

Since then, mine removal has been a necessarily slow and painstaking undertaking. But as mines are removed, displaced people are able to return to their ancestral homes, and they’re beginning to clear the miombo woodland where the Cuito River rises for small-scale farming.

Those trees are the reason the Okavango Delta exists. Rainwater percolating into the ground among the trees, rather than evaporating off bare dirt, emerges as a spring about the size of a swimming pool, which feeds a lake just over a mile long. From there, water spills into a narrow channel that eventually becomes the Okavango River.

This slow-flushing, forest-fed channel keeps water flowing into the Okavango Delta year-round. Strip the miombo woodlands in the delta’s Angolan headwaters, and it will dry up.

As the accidental protection of the landscape afforded by the diabolical presence of land mines is gradually lifted, will the Angolan government be able to replace that accidental protection with a sustainable environmental protection?

Speaking via satellite phone from the Cuito River, Boyes explains his goals for what he calls “the most important expedition of his life” and expresses his delight at finding himself and his team members so warmly received in Angola.

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National Geographic Explorer and conservation biologist Steve Boyes is the leader of the Okavango Wilderness Project.


As you set out on your mission, what do you hope to achieve?

Right now, we’re exploring the upper reaches of the Cuito River for the first time. That’s to say, we’re the first to come in and formally document what exists in this landscape. Our team includes botanists, ornithologists, entomologists, ichthyologists, and entomologists. We’ve already found three new fish species. Our bird list for this expedition is already well over 140, 20 of which have never been seen in this country before.

In the long-term, we’re advocating for a multinational UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses the entire Kavango Basin and complements the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (OKACOM).

The headwaters of the Okavango Delta are in Angola. What special challenges does Angola face as far as protection of this resource is concerned?

We’ve met with both of the governors of the provinces we’re passing through. We have support from the president of Angola and the ambassadors of the U.S., the U.K., South Africa, and Namibia.

So at the highest level, this project is being supported because of what we’re planning on doing, which is supporting tourism development in this region, specifically along the catchments of the Okavango River.

But tourism development is decades away. This area is pristine and incredibly remote. To get here, it was 60 or 70 miles from the nearest town, Muhungo, lost deep in a miombo forest. That took us nine hours.

Then suddenly the forest cleared, and right at sunset we found ourselves at the source of the Cuito River. I’ve never seen water so pure, with a slight blue tinge to it, so clear, so pristine you can see right to the bottom. So there’s huge potential here.

These sands are leached out by the rains, so it’s nutrient poor and marginal at best for agriculture. And this area was depopulated during the war. So the people coming back are Angolan pioneers. There are no cars, just motorbikes, the only transportation that’s safe off the roads on these small tracks.

As soon as we arrived, five motorbikes arrived behind us to sell us boxes of wine, cokes, sweets. It was like a grocery store. Incredibly hospitable people. Every person we find, we sit them down with our Angolan partner, Adjany Costa—she’s an ichthyologist—and interview them about the wildlife of the region.   

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More than she wants to take on: a herd of Cape buffalo in the Okavango Delta.


It’s been estimated that as a result of that war Angola is third in the world in its number of land mines. Many lie around the headwaters of the delta. How will this affect your work?

Yes, to get here, we were going through an area that was central in Angola’s war. We passed at least seven blown-up military convoys, we passed through dense minefields.

The HALO trust, the humanitarian de-mining NGO, has been our strongest partner here. But as they de-mine and open up a region, you can see where people are clearing the forest to grow cassavas. That’s causing a lot of damage. It’s adding a lot of urgency to our work.

We need to look at better land management. We need to look at critical ecosystems we can protect. We’re documenting the habitat, the unique species, and issuing opinions to the government on potential tourism possibilities, game reserves, national parks, protected areas.

It’s incredibly hard to get here. Part of the government encouragement of having us here is to take stock of what’s here. The intention of the local government is to have community-based tourism, and that’s what we’re encouraging.

Angola ranks very high in the world’s corruption index. Economic growth over the next four years is expected to top 5.6 percent, and Angola’s wealth is achieved almost solely through mineral extraction. How do you see a cultural and governmental shift taking place from a habit of extraction toward resource protection?

The feeling I have is I’ve never felt so welcomed in a country, so wanted. We have the police escorting us everywhere; I mean these guys are really taking care of us.

Angolans want a new beginning. It’s hard to believe given the history, but it’s what’s happening. They want a fresh start. They want to open their borders to tourism, which doesn’t exist in the country anymore, and they want to change the perception that exists right now that Angola is closed and corrupt. There’s this desire to break that stigma now.  

Follow the expedition’s progress at http://intotheokavango.org/

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