The salvation of the world
Wild Bird Trust
Each year, South African ornithologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Steve Boyes and his team pole themselves 250 kilometers in dugout canoes to the centre of Botswana’s Okavango River Delta. Their mission: to ensure Africa’s last remaining wetland wilderness is protected – in June 2014 it was listed as the 1000th UNESCO World Heritage site. Steve told TUNZA about the delta, his passion for parrots, and why wilderness is important.
Tell us about the Okavango Delta.
It’s literally a wonderland, a wilderness beyond comparison. Thousands of birds, hundreds of elephants, so many lions at night that you don’t know what to do, and clan of 50 hyenas will likely visit your camp at night, too.
The Okavango Delta and its catchment are the size of Texas, with the river flowing more 1,600 kilometers from Angola through Namibia to Botswana, where the waters fan out into the Kalahari – the desert, not the sea. It’s made up of a vast network of islands, floodplains and flooded grasslands, and it’s a critical biodiversity hotspot – more than 160 mammal, 155 reptile, 530 bird, and 35 amphibian species. Besides holding the world’s largest-remaining elephant, buffalo and hippo populations, the delta has keystone populations of lion, hyena, giraffe and lechwe – a beautiful antelope.
You’re originally from South Africa, and a bird expert. How did you first become interested in the Okavango Delta?
South African Cape Parrot http://thegreentimes.co.za
My lifelong passion is South Africa’s only endemic parrot, the South African Cape Parrot, which is highly endangered due to the degradation of Afromontane forests, the illegal wild bird trade, and disease. In trying to find ways to help conserve it, I began to study the Meyer’s Parrot – the most abundant, widespread parrot in Africa and a close relative to the Cape parrot. The Meyer’s parrot thrives in the Okavango, so I went there to learn its secrets … and fell in love with the place.
Why is the Okavango under threat?
You name it, it threatens the delta – irrigation schemes, agricultural development, hunting, overfishing, mining exploration, poaching, tourism and population increase. My long-term research and expeditions are focused on securing its future. It takes eight days to get there, whereas 20 years ago, it would have taken two hours in a boat out of the only nearby town – an indicator of how far the wilderness has retreated.
What are you doing out there?
Wild Bird Trust
We’re establishing baselines for biodiversity so that we have a point of reference when things change, as they inevitably will. One of our projects in the Okavango Delta is a wetland bird survey, a broad-based biodiversity survey that uses birds as bioindicators of significant change in the water and islands of the Okavango. Birds can choose with their wings. When things go wrong in an ecosystem, birds simply do not stay.
As we work, we make all our findings and adventures available to the public in real time, on our website, http://intotheokavango.org . We are trying to get the world excited and help protect this part of the world that they’ll never get to see for themselves.
We are delighted that the Okavango Delta has just been designated a multinational UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 1000th site. It’s the largest protected area in the world. This recognition will help protect the Delta from encroachment and pollution – but our work will continue. Preservation doesn’t just happen!
Why is wilderness important?
Henry David Thoreau said: “In wildness is the salvation of the world.” Wilderness cannot be restored or recreated … only destroyed. Such places connect us to eternity, to our primal relationship to Earth – it’s what people go into nature to seek. We need to be able to sit silently in the wilderness to listen to the universe and ourselves. Our planet will die and all will go grey if we lose that connection.
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The upcoming feature documentary Okavango follows Steve Boyes and his team of explorers into the primordial wilderness of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, on their mission to ensure the preservation of Africa’s last-remaining wetland wilderness.