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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.