A vital watershed and a fountain of life that nurtures six countries, millions of people and some of the most important wildlife on Earth, is begging for protection. If this place could be protected and soundly managed, biodiversity scientists argue that this would extend the life of the Okavango Delta. Staff Writer, THALEFANG CHARLES reports
The Okavango Delta is shrinking. But the encouraging news is that there are men and women, who have made it their mission to save the Okavango Delta and it is a dirty and dangerous assignment. In 2015 they did the unthinkable. They crossed into one of the world’s most heavily mined territories in south east Angola – still littered with live land mines – in an attempt to survey the area that is the principal source of the waters of the Okavango.
The National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP), the brainchild of Dr Steve Boyes, is a research and exploration project, “gathering the relevant baseline data in order to support the current and proposed protection, conservation and socio-economic upliftment within this undeveloped system”.
Prior to 2015 the project was relatively a small team of researchers led by Dr Boyes, then called Okavango Wetland Bird Survey. The project was basically a nine-year annual research survey aimed at documenting the wetland birds along a transect across the Okavango Delta, from Seronga to Maun, travelling on mekoro (dug-out canoes).
Boyes says the Wetlands birds are the best environmental indicator. “They can simply choose with their wings. Look down from above and find a better place,” Boyes said.
With that knowledge Boyes decided to use the wetlands birds to show him “how healthy the Delta was, across its entire breadth”.
In 2013, Boyes was made an Emerging Explorer with the National Geographic Society (NatGeo), and with the awareness that followed from the National Geographic he planned for a much bigger survey to understand the entire Okavango River basin from its source to the mouth.
That is when the NGOWP did the unthinkable, with the assistance of NatGeo crossed the curtain of land mines to the source of the Cuito River in the remote Angolan highlands. The Boyes put together an incredible expedition team comprising experts from nine different countries including biodiversity scientists, researchers, photographers, filmmakers, safari-guides and story-tellers.
The team included a crucial humanitarian mine clearance organisation working in Angola called The Halo Trust to provide ground support. With Halo, they were able to gingerly travel to heavily mined areas up to the source of the Cuito River. From the source, they literally followed the entire breadth of the river, over 2,400km, for about four months through three countries past the Okavango Delta to the mouth of Boteti River as it pours out into Lake Xau near Mopipi in the Boteti area.
The arduous megatransect is the subject of the film Into The Okavango that had its world premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in New York last month. The film is also aimed at sending out the message about the ticking time bomb of the Okavango Delta status.
After the Cuito expedition, the NGOWP returned to Angola with more biodiversity researchers to survey the source lakes and entire rivers of Cuito and Cuanavale. Some of the major discoveries were the significance of peat deposits at these lakes. They found that water in these lakes is mainly collected by the peat – formed by layers of dead vegetation – like
This, scientists concluded, would allow the river to continue to flow even if it can stop raining for an extended period. They also learnt of prevalent bushfires by the local communities – who have never had any environmental education whatsoever. These fires, mainly lit by hunters trying to scare animals, are threatening to wipe thick forests that are crucial to the rivers.
NGOWP also spent months in the landscape learning more about the flora, fauna and people of this region. After three years exploring the region NGOWP identified the 149,000sq km region where the headwaters of the Okavango, Cuando, Zambezi and Kwanza rivers originate, as key to the long-term conservation goals of these systems. This unique region, which is around the provinces of Bie, Moxico and Cuanda-Cubango is currently unprotected even though it is the start of some of Africa’s major rivers.
NGOWP engaged local communities and is still in consultation with Angolan government to facilitate the policy formulation that would provide for the protection of the region. The proposed protected area is being coined ‘Lisima Lwa Mwono’ the Fountain of Life in the local Luchaze dialect.
These days NGOWP director Boyes has improved his Portuguese due to numerous meetings lobbying with Angolan authorities on committing to this bold proposal. NGOWP has roped in an Angolan, Adjany Costa, a young scientist currently doing research for her doctorate, to be a conservation face and leader in Angola. Costa was instrumental in getting Angolan talent, mostly based in Luanda, to be part of the current NGOWP expedition through the Cuando River (and its tributary Kembo River).
These Angolans include photographers, representatives from ministry of environment, and local polers. Costa hopes that these Angolans will share the environment inspirations with the rest of Angolans and eventually start a countrywide wave that would move the authorities to prioritise the conservation endeavours.
Angola is in a phase of rebuilding after decades of civil war and the need for natural resources, which the country has in abundance, poses risks in unprotected forests. There are already major Asian companies (with industrial scale wood appetite) logging the pristine forests in Angola because of unduly contract deals that were not involving environmental impact assessments.
Currently, there are two research expeditions exploring the Cuando and Kembo Rivers. Although the Cuando is not technically on the Okavango River system, there is an evident connection of this river to the Delta. The Cuando River forms the Linyanti Swamps and flows to the Chobe and Zambezi River. During years of substantial flood, the waters of the Linyanti Swamps flow back and get connected to the Okavango Delta via the Selinda Spillway.
If the Lisima Lwa Mwono could finally be protected it will be a win-win for the Angolans, Batswana and the flora and fauna from the Okavango River basin. Meanwhile back in the river, the NGOWP expedition members are busy dealing with water berry trees that keep capsizing their mekoro and throwing them for a swim into the river. Follow the expedition on social media with #cuando18 and #kembo18