Q&A: Africa's Last Wetland Wilderness Named 1,000th World Heritage Site

National Geographic Explorer Steve Boyes explains the Okavango Delta.

The Okavango River Basin is the world's largest undeveloped river catchment.


This week UNESCO officially recognized the Okavango Delta in Botswana as its 1,000th World Heritage Site, putting it alongside iconic places such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, and the Great Wall, to name a few.

Begun in 1972, the aim of the list—part of the World Heritage Convention, which has 191 signatory nations—is to protect a diverse collection of the world's cultural and natural treasures. But for many years it tipped steeply toward cultural sites, leaving wildernesses to fend for themselves. Since 1994 UNESCO has worked to strike more of a balance, and the natural world is getting its due.

National Geographic Explorer Steve Boyes of the Wild Bird Trust fell in love with the Okavango on his first visit in 2000 and has been slogging through its soggy wilds and pushing for its protection ever since. We spoke with Boyes about what makes the place so deserving of international attention, and why he calls it his "spiritual home."

Let's start with you and the delta. What was your initial experience like in this wilderness?

I discovered the Okavango Delta for myself in 2000 and lived there for five years guiding and managing luxury bush camps. From the moment I arrived, I knew that I had discovered my spiritual home, the one place to which my soul was forever bound. While learning how to live off the channels, floodplains, and islands with the local baYei River Bushmen, I have learned my place on this planet. My interactions with local wildlife over the years have informed my value system and so many aspects of my life.

Tell us more about the delta itself: What is it? Who and what lives there?

It's the world's largest undeveloped river catchment—only the Yukon is longer [counting just rivers without dams]. The technical term for the formation is "alluvial fan"; it's flatter than a pool table and fans out perfectly into a dry wasteland visible from space.

This delta is a true oasis in the middle of the bone-dry Kalahari Sand Basin, a rare untouched wilderness that's been preserved by decades of border and civil wars in the Angolan catchment. Many people along the Okavango River live like communities did some 400 years ago—and from them I think we can learn a lot about how to be better stewards of the natural world.

How much water does it move?

The Okavango floods up to ten cubic kilometers [8.1 million acre feet] of water into the Kalahari Desert every year. The rainy season brings an additional 24 to 28 inches [61 to 71 centimeters], but the harsh Kalahari sun evaporates or transpires 98 percent back into the sky. If no floods arrived and the rains didn't come, the delta would dry up in a year.

What wildlife does it support?

An amazing variety. It's home to the largest remaining elephant population on Earth—every winter more than 80,000 of them arrive in the delta to meet the oncoming floods, leaving with the first signs of rain in the northeast. This vast unfenced landscape allows them to live and migrate as they have for thousands of years. The delta is also home to the keystone populations of lion, leopard, hyena, wild dog, cheetah, hippo, and much else.

Is it dangerous out there for Homo sapiens?

You bet. On the water there are hippo and crocodile everywhere. On land, lion and elephant walk through camp as hyena do night raids. The true wilderness teaches you to respect every step and makes you feel alive every time you are in it. I have owned my mokoro [a shallow-water canoe propelled using a pole while standing] for ten years now and hope to be poling myself across a pristine delta in my old age.

Why is the delta worthy of being a World Heritage Site?

UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which are decided on by the World Heritage Committee—a collection of experts and policymakers from around the world tasked with protecting our last, grand windows into the past—must be of outstanding universal value and their preservation considered of importance to global natural heritage. The delta certainly fits the bill.

This is Africa's last remaining wetland wilderness, an 8,000-square-kilometer [3,000 square miles] patchwork of floodplains, channels, lagoons, and thousands upon thousands of islands—some people say more than 10,000 of them.

Can you estimate numbers of some of the different kinds of animals?

The abundance of life is mind boggling: more than 530 bird species, thousands of plant species,160 different mammals,155 reptiles, scores of frogs, countless insects. Everywhere you look you find life. We surveyed bats and we found 17 species in three days. We started looking for praying mantises and found 90 different species. This is the ark of the Kalahari and this part of Africa. (See: "Africa's Okavango Delta for Future Generations.")

What does being on the list mean?

There is usually a burst of investment by government and the private sector into a new World Heritage Site to support tourism development and the preservation of the site, after which no further development is allowed. The World Heritage Fund provides money for special projects on request and intervenes if anything or anyone is having a measurable impact on the site.

Was it hard to get the designation?

It took us eight years to achieve it in the Okavango Delta. Botswana only has two World Heritage Sites, Tsodilo Hills [an archaeological site] and now the delta. It took that long to compile the necessary information dossiers for the IUCN Evaluation Mission and UNESCO Site Selection Committee. Dr. Karen Ross, the program design director at the African Wildlife Foundation and a long-time champion of the delta, managed to find independent funding to run the necessary stakeholder meetings and drive the process forward. She is a true delta hero.

What would be the next area you'd like to see UNESCO name?

All of this is for nothing if we do not protect the water that feeds the Okavango Delta. This basin is the world's largest remaining developed river catchment and Africa's most important unprotected landscape.

What would need to happen to protect those waters?

Three things must happen. First, Namibia must commit to protecting their section for the Okavango River and join us in calling Angola to join the push to establish a multinational UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the entire catchment.

Second, we need Angola to establish the first protected areas in the Okavango's catchment.

Third, we need OKACOM [the Okavango River Water Commission] to bring Angola, Namibia, and Botswana together in active discussion about the future of the Okavango River. Up until now Botswana has benefited hugely from the delta, while Namibia and Angola have benefited very little. We need shared benefit and high-quality scientific research to make UNESCO World Heritage a possibility.

Anything else that would be helpful in this fight?

Yes, and it's really important. We need a special visa that allows easy access by road, air, and river to the entire basin in Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. Shared benefit from tourism can only happen when tourists can move freely between these countries. If we do not open up the Angolan catchment to ecotourism development, other land uses such as mining and agriculture will prevail.

What is your next move?

In August this year, four National Geographic explorers will be crossing the Okavango Delta in dugout canoes—barefoot, unarmed, with minimal food rations, and no possessions. The 2014 Okavango Expedition will be in celebration of the World Heritage listing and forms part of the nine-year Okavango Wetland Bird Survey. We will also be showcasing the way of life of the baYei River Bushmen who depend on the delta.

There's also a research expedition planned for 2015, right?

Yes, and this August expedition will be the launch of that, called the Okavango Wilderness Project. The expedition in 2015 will take us from "source to sand" over 1,200 miles down the length of the Okavango River. We will be in unexplored areas and aim to gather the scientific and survey data to motivate officials to protect the Angolan catchment.

How will local people be involved?

We will be compiling a signed manifesto from community meetings in all villages along the river for presentation to the Angolan government. Over three months we will push ourselves to our physical and mental limits while working to unite the people of the river. This will be the most important expedition of my life.

Why have you dedicated your life to this mission?

I have a newborn son and will work every day with every breath to make sure he gets to live in a world that is inspiring, alive, and vital. I need him to be able to sit alone one day in a living Okavango wilderness and feel alive, like I have done all these years. Bigger picture: "In wildness is the preservation" of humankind. At least for me.