Wild(life) Lessons

Wild(life) Lessons… from Botswana!

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard 

This male baby elephant displays a protective stance and mock charges the vehicle as his mother stares.

I should have been scared. With flapping ears and outstretched trunk, it lumbered towards us with a warning to stay back. It was just too cute for me to be worried; however, the mother staring intently from behind her baby boy was more formidable. We knew to keep our distance for a charging elephant is no joke. Plus, our encounter the day before was too close and a bit comical (in our effort to escape a charging bull elephant, we sped off, abruptly hit a camouflaged tree stump, and with whiplash, we backed-up… towards the still-charging elephant who had gained even more ground!). I had researched African elephants as a student in Kenya, and I was eager to explore a new part of Africa and learn more. On this educational trip to Botswana, I initially wanted to see wild dogs in the wild, an endangered species I have always wanted to study. But, what I learned in Botswana could affect more than just wild dogs—it could impact the entire Okavango Delta ecosystem.

The Okavango Delta in Botswana. Namibia proposes to divert water from the Okavango River through a 250-km pipeline.

Wildlife conservation in Botswana is fascinating, especially when compared to homeThere is a different kind of wildlife shooting happening in Botswana. In 2014, by Presidential decree, Botswana banned the hunting of wildlife nationwide. Now all you can shoot is a camera. The safari-based tourism sector is chomping at the bit to rival the beef export industry as the second largest industry in the country. In 1966, Botswana celebrated its independence from Britain. Soon after independence, diamonds were discovered in Botswana (fortunate timing for the new democracy) and their extraction has reigned as the top sector since then. Although Botswana is the world’s biggest diamond producer, peak diamond output is behind them and future economic diversification may not be so diverse if tourism eggs keep filling the country’s economic basket. This may present wildlife conservation and water security challenges in the future.

This subordinate female wild dog was one of 12 in a pack out for a cooperative evening hunt.

Similar to the Western United States, Botswana’s government owns about 40% of land in a country roughly the size of Texas. The percentage of federally-owned land is higher in Oregon (~53%). What is interesting about Botswana is that large tracts of government land called concessions are leased to private safari companies. The eco-tourism industry and the wildlife it depends upon are ultimately dependent upon the flow and health of the Okavango River that feeds its Delta— the world’s largest inland delta that creates over 15,800 km2 of rich and diverse habitat for countless wildlife species. It is also a water source for tens of thousands of Delta residents and the growing eco-tourism industry.

As the indigenous story goes, the hippo, an herbivore, yawns to show the gods that he hasn’t eaten any fish.

The Okavango River is truly the lifeblood of the Delta. The River is 1,100 km long, is one of the last unindustrialized rivers in the world, and it passes through two other countries before it even reaches Botswana’s border. The headwaters of this transboundary river are in Angola, a country crippled by a 25-year-long civil war and a refugee crisis where water and energy demands are predicted to increase, especially with climate change and desertification trends. The Okavango River then flows southward through Namibia. Uninterrupted, the River reaches the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. The Namibian government has considered diverting water from the Okavango River upstream of the Delta in order to supply their growing population in Windhoek and farming needs in northern Namibia. This would entail building a 250-km pipeline and the possible construction of a hydropower dam at Popa Falls, less than 50 km upstream from Botswana. Sound familiar? We all know the environmental impacts of dams as well as the flip-side of economic and development opportunities they may provide.

This female leopard has stashed her cubs while she gains elevation in search of prey.

The Okavango Basin covers an area of approximately 413,550 km2 across the three countries. As Angola and Namibia permit wildlife hunting for revenue, Botswana has turned into a “safer” haven for wildlife, especially endangered elephants and rhinos. The fate of wildlife conservation in northern Botswana hinges on the three countries sustaining a non-violent partnership, and realistically, the historic annual flow of water into the Okavango Delta. The transboundary co-management of the Basin must balance the needs of people and wildlife, especially when it comes to improving the livelihoods of citizens in post-war Angola. What would this entail? Water diversion? Dams? Or no infrastructure development at all? Without using an oversimplified and neo-colonialist cookie-cutter approach that “best practices” can unintentionally create, one can still draw historical and present-day parallels (albeit broad ones) between Botswana, Oregon, and across the American West in general.

This young cheetah scans the grassland with his mother. Impala are close by, but so are other predators.

Oregon and the Pacific Northwest are not immune to similar issues of water management and policy, water rights, land tenure and land use changes and disputes, indigenous rights and social justice issues, energy demands, and competing wildlife values. While the stakeholders, details, and the timing may be different,  Oregon’s environmental and cultural histories and those of Botswana’s are surprisingly similar. For, after all, we are all people with the same needs and wildlife have their needs as well. Someone or something always lives downstream from us.  Wildlife conservation is really about people management, which is a fascinating and complex set of topics and issues with no easy or clear solutions. That is why I’ve always been drawn to human-wildlife conflicts because they are really human-human conflicts in disguise.  What we may see as ecological threats and social challenges can be opportunities for improved collaboration and management of what we value, whether it’s in Botswana or right here at home in Oregon. It may require some deep and permanent change in the way we think and live, but there’s hope yet.

This lion cub and his pride score an old cape buffalo, and they didn’t even have to work for it!


Blog post and photos by Rebecca McKay Steinberg, Greenbelt’s Membership & Outreach Coordinator