In Botswana, I had the opportunity to meet John Hilton and Steve Boyes from the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, which is working to protect the delta and its source water. I joined the project team on a section of their annual journey across the delta in traditional dug-out canoes called mokoro. As we rowed down the channels, they shared with me some fascinating facts about the delta’s tourism and wildlife, expanding my horizons.
Botswana is known for its diamond mining and tourism industries, in that order of economic importance. Wildlife tourism is a huge (and mostly sustainable) economic driver, generating not only jobs and capital in this country of under 2.5 million people, but paying for itself many times over. I was amazed to learn that in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism accounted for 13% of the country’s GDP or around $712 million and nearly 9% of the jobs. So when COVID-19 hit, this sector was deeply impacted.
As tourism revives in the delta, conservation efforts such as the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project become all the more imperative. One million people and thousands of species, including the largest remaining population of elephants, are dependent on the floodwaters of the delta, most of which (2.5 trillion gallons of it every year!) comes from the rainfall in the Angolan highlands. Today, these waters are threatened by deforestation, fire, and unchecked development.
The conservationists told me they conduct yearly transects of various tributaries, documenting water, soil, and biodiversity health — discovering many new species along the way. They also train local educators to make the next generation aware of their amazing natural heritage. Protected wilderness areas are important to conservation efforts as they sequester tons of carbon from the atmosphere, purify water bodies through intricate and ancient filtration systems, and provide food and water to local communities and wildlife that depend on it for survival.
The core project team is a mix of several generations of Batswana people, who have lived on the waterways of the Okavango for hundreds of years and have an intimate and deeply intuitive connection with the ecosystem. I was honored and humbled to meet these incredible men and women, who work tirelessly to protect one of the world’s greatest ecosystems.