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Okavango Delta: Studying Angolaĺs terra incognita

Boyes presenting in Cape Town PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
In a room full of old professors and young scientists, together with internationally acclaimed explorers in Cape Town (which ironically is also in water dire straits), the critical status of the Okavango Delta is under discussion. If they cannot solve the Angolan southeastern conundrum, this pristine wilderness might cease to exist, Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES reports

CAPE TOWN: For years, the southeastern region of Angola, a host to the sources of the Okavango, Zambezi and Kwanza rivers, has been a terra incognita – a mystery to science. It has remained a black hole in the map of biodiversity data because no explorers have dared to access the area due to the raging war in Angola.

The region was practically cut out from Angola and the rest of the world for over three decades due to the civil war. The warring factions put a curtain of landmines to practically block anyone from accessing the area.

Angola is one of the top most mined areas in the world with the estimated number of undetonated Angolan landmines ranging between 10 and 20 million, which equates to at least one to two land mines for every person in the country.

For 30 years, mines were scattered in Angola’s fields, villages, roads, and other unexpected places, intimidating, maiming and killing innocent victims. The United Nations estimates put the number of Angolan amputees resulting from the silent killers at 70,000. 

The land mines kept the Okavango headwater habitants relatively untouched, as the area remained wild - remote and undeveloped.

But now the war has ended.

Sixteen years into peace, there is a need to open and develop this war-torn region and this presents new complicated challenges to Botswana’s Okavango Delta, which is about 1,200 kilometres away from the rivers’ sources.


Angola’s liquid gift to Botswana

These unexplored remote highlands of Angola are the water tower of the Okavango River basin. The waters of the Okavango Delta flow from these highlands through Namibia’s Caprivi Strip providing sustenance to unique ecosystems and about a million people along the way.

Now that the war is over, The HALO Trust and other de-mining organisations are busy clearing the area to make it accessible. There is an impending population boom that will result in need for more land, water diversion and more commercial projects at the once remote and untouched highlands of Angola.

National Geographic Society (NGS) reports that on average 2.5 trillion gallons of water flows into Botswana from Angola every year. “Take away that liquid gift, rendered by Angola to Botswana each year, and the Okavango [Delta] would cease to exist,” reported the NGS two months ago.


Lifeline to Okavango Delta

NGS has since taken an initiative to protect the Okavango Delta by funding the Okavango Wilderness Protect (NGOWP) led by South African biodiversity expert, Dr Steve Boyes. 

NGOWP is aimed at ensuring “preservation of Africa’s iconic Okavango Delta by exploring the headwaters and protecting the floodwaters it depends upon”.

NGOWP scientists have so far completed eight biodiversity survey expeditions that included over 6,500km by foot, mokoro, bicycle, vehicle and helicopter using drones, water sensors, camera traps and local expertise. 

The main goals were to study endemic species, conduct

the first systematic source to delta surveys that would inform conservation strategies for the area.

The NGOWP science director, Professor Paul Skelton said their biodiversity surveys are groundbreaking because, “no other single research expedition has ever surveyed the whole river system”.


Research findings

Last week NGOWP brought dozens of scientists that had surveyed the unexplored Okavango headwaters in Angola for a science symposium in Cape Town, South Africa to report on their discoveries and discussions to chart a way forward to achieving a vision for preserving the Okavango Delta.

About 30 speakers from various science fields presented their findings and suggestions. Some of the highlights of the research findings are:

•  24 potentially new species to science have been discovered

• 47 new species for Angola discovered

• Numerous species not known to be distributed in study area discovered

•  New populations of cheetah and African wild dog

• Hydroelectric dams, irrigation projects, pollution and increasing local demand for water could compromise the Okavango Delta’s future.

•  The heart of the water tower has a radius of 55km and contains sources of the Kwanza, Okavango, Zambezi and Kwando rivers.


Protected areas

Although the scientists concurred that there is need for decades more of research, they have accepted the proposal for Lisima Lwa Mwono Wilderness Area to protect the source lakes and upper reaches of the Cuito and Cuando rivers.

NGOWP leader, Boyes told the symposium that the project intends to complete the exploration of their core study area now referred to as Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower as well as to “inaugurate the Angolan Ministry of Environment’s consultancy to develop the proposals and reports necessary to establish of new protected areas”.

NGOWP also hopes to assimilate its core study area (Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower) into the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TFCA) and form the largest conservation area in the world.

The corporate director of NGOWP, John Hilton said: “The aim is to form a conservation consortium of partners – both management and donor partners – to oversee the management of the greater landscape in partnership with Angolan Ministry of Environment”.

He also said their short-term plans for their ambitious project is to showcase the NGS film Into The Okavango to the leadership of Angola and Botswana.

Into The Okavango is a film about the mega-transect research expedition by mekoro that took six months and covered over 2,400km from the source lake of the Cuito to the end of water at Lake Xau in the plains of Makgadikgadi. 

With the film, which stars Boyes, young Angolan scientists Adjany Costa and Motswana poler from Jao Water Setlabosha, NGOWP hopes to institute a fresh perspective dialogue among the governments along the Okavango River basin to find lasting conservation initiatives that would benefit more than one million people in Angola, Botswana and Namibia and several threatened wildlife species in the basin.


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