Okavango Delta: This unique geographic oasis is at risk – and so are we all


Owen Ullmann & Chris Albert, USA Today

Date Published

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OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA: Portuguese explorers called it “terra do fim do mundo,” land at the end of the Earth. And for good reason.

Africa’s Okavango River Basin, which covers 125,000 square miles across Angola, Botswana and Namibia, is home to the largest remaining population of African elephants, as well as significant numbers of lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and hundreds of species of birds.

The vast water system is in the middle of one of the driest and most inhospitable places in the world – the Kalahari Desert. It breathes vibrant life into a landscape that would otherwise seem lifeless and covered in sand.

From land, the Okavango Delta seems almost prehistoric. Standing there, you would think you were the only human left in the world as you look out to a green, endless horizon spotted with bushes and trees that have obviously endured years of hungry elephants and giraffes. 

Far from the sounds of cars beeping or phones buzzing – or working Wi-Fi! – there is an overwhelming silence interrupted only by bird calls and the rustle of leaves. 
Being in the middle of the wilderness, removed from the comforts of modern life, gives you an opportunity to realize your place in this world as a human, and why it’s so important that we protect fragile wildernesses such as this.

Seeing the Okavango Delta from the air, it is even more obvious how unique and incredible this ecosystem is. Waterways stretch in every direction like little highways formed by animal architects such as hippos, elephants and buffalo. 

Lush islands made from termite mounds are scattered in the middle of crystal clear bodies of water. Here, life moves in a circle. 
The lives of the smallest termites guide the growth of vegetation, which feeds the animals that migrate to this region, and so on. One small hiccup in this system’s health could have a huge impact on the animals and people who depend on it.

Why should people care? The answer is simple: We are all interconnected. And this is one of the greatest conservation opportunities left, and a rare chance to intervene before it reaches a crisis point.

In 2014, the delta became the 1,000th entry on the United Nations list of unique “World Heritage” sites. 

Not many people in the U.S. and around the world are familiar with the Okavango River Basin, which is why South African conservation biologist Steve Boyes is sounding the alarm. Beyond the animals that depend on it, it’s also a vital source of water for about 1 million people. 
However, this oasis is now threatened by human activity along the rivers that feed it.

Boyes led a four-month, 1,500-mile expedition from Angola, through Namibia and into Botswana to trace for the first time the source of the Okavango’s waters. 

His discovery and the arduous journey that led up to his finding are the basis of the captivating “Into the Okavango,” from National Geographic Documentary Films, which airs Friday on Nat Geo WILD.

Boyes hopes the film will awaken people to the threat the delta faces. “It is this unique sanctuary for regional biodiversity,” he says. “If we were to lose this, we would lose the security for thousands of species in this part of the world.”

The world also would lose an amazing wilderness area that enthralls visitors. Wildlife is everywhere, especially elephants, who sense they are safe here from the poachers who would kill them for their ivory tusks. 

Tourists also regularly come upon giraffes, lions, leopards, baboons, cape buffalo, hyenas, warthogs, zebras and an astounding variety of birds, from tiny blue waxbills to impressive fish eagles.

Boyes’ expedition discovered that waters from Angolan rivers went through massive peat deposits and forests acting like immense sponges, then resurfaced to feed into the delta.

The source of all that water is at risk because of development, particularly recent uranium and mercury mining in Angola, which was devastated by a 27-year civil war that ended in 2002. The country is now trying to catch up economically to bring a measure of prosperity to the population.

Boyes is hoping to persuade the Angolan government to be more conservation-conscious and to rally global public opinion behind protection for the Okavango Delta. “The world is watching. I keep on saying that to them.”

The scientist, who has a doctorate in zoology, has been passionate about protecting Africa’s pristine wilderness from early childhood and is even more committed now that he is the father of two children. The expedition was exhausting, and Boyes almost died when his mokoro, a canoe-like boat, overturned when attacked by an angry hippo.

If the delta were to dry up, the impact on the global environment would be enormous, he warns. It is not just the loss of a unique wilderness. Dried peat deposits also would release into the atmosphere enormous amounts of carbon, adding to the already alarming buildup of greenhouse gases. “That’s an incredible carbon sink,” Boyes says.

“We all need the idea of wilderness,” Boyes says. “Something dies in our society if these places disappear. To me, wilderness is the birthplace of religion, it is the birthplace of science, it is the foundation of who we are and what created us.”

“We have 10,15 years left now to protect these wild places because what we protect now is all we’re going to have in 2030,” he says.

Chris Albert is executive vice president of National Geographic Channel, which sponsored a trip by journalists from USA TODAY to the Okavango Delta.