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Wilderness Cannot Be Restored Or Recreated. Only Destroyed.

Steve Boyes
Not knowing where you are in the vastness of the Okavango Delta can be overwhelming as you go deeper and deeper into the unknown wilderness. Wrong turns and short cuts that do not work can break the spirit and the back. A vast, unending flat wilderness that wraps around you and presents the wonders of life. (Steve Boyes)

“Wilderness cannot be restored or recreated. Only destroyed. We are just about to lose our last glimpses into prehistory that connect us to eternity and remember a time before modern man.” (Steve Boyes)

2014 Okavango Expedition

The 2014 Okavango Expedition will be used to test research and survey techniques for the 2015 Okavango River Expedition. All expedition equipment, cameras and production equipment, power supply, data storage, satellite connectivity, and waterproofing and impact protection systems. We are going to film the opening scenes for the film, Okavango, before and during this year’s expedition.

This feature documentary film, Okavango, is the centerpiece of the Okavango Wilderness Project.

Steve Makoroa

Without a film we have no hope of achieving our goal to preserve one of the world’s most valuable wildernesses. This independent documentary film will showcase the human experience in the wilderness. We will be unarmed, have minimal food rations, and no possessions, living like baYei River Bushmen as we pole our traditional dug-out canoes from “source to sand”.

This film is real exploration, real people, real danger, and real necessity.

Our universal message is that the irreversible loss of our last true wilderness areas will be the greatest tragedy of our time. This is the iconic, unfilmed narrative of what is happening on the African continent. Africa is rising and needs to be wary of what happened to Europe, America and China when they put economic growth and development above wilderness and our natural heritage. This is an independent film about a once-in-a-lifetime expedition down an unexplored river within one of the world’s last-remaining true wilderness areas. The threat is universal and the loss if irreversible. We should all fear the ultimate consequences of failing to act now…

Screen shot 2012-02-18 at 4.26.21 PM

UNESCO World Heritage Listing and intotheokavango.org

The 2014 Okavango Expedition will be in celebration of World Heritage Listing and shared in real-time via intotheokavango.org directly involving people around the world. The Okavango Delta is already the world’s largest RAMSAR site. This vast alluvial fan is scheduled to be listed as Africa’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site at the 38th session of the World Heritage Committee (15 – 25 June, 2014) in Doha, State of Qatar. In 2014, we will be on the water by mid-August conducting the 5th Okavango Wetland Bird Survey by poling 300-340km over 18 days along a transect route through the remote central wilderness of the Okavango Delta.

A view from the live representation of the 2013 Okavango Expedition that was updated every 20 minutes and shared all research data every day. Go to: intotheokavango.org. (Wild Bird Trust / Office for Creative Research)
A view from the live representation of the 2013 Okavango Expedition that was updated every 20 minutes and shared all research data every day. All data, biometrics, sights, sounds and thoughts will be uploaded in real-time on the 2014 Okavango Expedition. (Wild Bird Trust / Office for Creative Research)

We share all research data, tracks, habitat photographs, sound recordings and biometrics (e.g. heart beats, calories, balance, etc.) via an open API. We need to inspire millions of people around the world to preserve a remote wilderness they will never visit. intotheokavango.org will be rolled out to as many schools around the world as possible to get students and scholars involved in the day-to-day of our expeditions in this enigmatic wilderness. We need the word “Okavango” to live in the dreams and aspirations of the next generation.

Elephants at sunset during the 2011 Okavango Expedition. The dry, ashy floodplains named for their grey peat ash create the enigmatic red and orange sunsets in the central delta. Wilerness at its best... (Steve Boyes)
Elephants at sunset during the 2011 Okavango Expedition. The dry, ashy floodplains named for their grey peat ash create the enigmatic red and orange sunsets in the central delta. Wilerness at its best… (Steve Boyes)

Background

Africa’s last-remaining wetland wilderness, Botswana’s Okavango Delta, depends on pristine floodwaters from the world’s largest undeveloped river catchment, the Kavango Basin, in Angola and Namibia. Irrigation schemes, rice, mining, dams, logging, plantations, charcoal, settlements, bushmeat, and hydro-electric weirs in the remote catchment are coming with (and most likely funded by) new roads and railways built by Chinese contractors and entrepreneurs. Angola is now Africa’s 5th largest oil producer and wants to invest in food and water security in their remote eastern highlands. Water is scarce in Namibia and planned irrigation schemes from the Okavango River could double their water consumption as a country.

The unique wonderland and wildlife sanctuary that still exists in the Okavango Delta is the direct result of 34 years of war and instability. Now, bizarrely, peace and progress threaten this unique, almost anachronistic, wilderness that should not exist.

From a country in turmoil with heavily-armed militias and foreign powers meddling in government and natural resource management, Angola is now a rapidly-developing Africa state with accumulating oil revenue and development partners ready to stimulate economic growth and development. The Kavango Basin was the location of the biggest battles of the South African Border War (1968-89) and Angolan Civil War (1975-2002). Blown our tanks, helicopters, fighter jets and armoured vehicles are scattered across the catchment. In the Kavango Basin, we have one of our last opportunity to preserve history out of the ashes of decades of war at a time when Africa was being stripped of natural resources in the post-colonial period.

The Okavango Delta is the beating heart of the Kalahari Desert and an important part of our global heritage visible from space. (LandSat 1979)
The Okavango Delta is the beating heart of the Kalahari Desert and an important part of our global heritage visible from space. (LandSat 1979)
Google Earth 2012
Okavango Delta and the entire Okavango River up to Huambo, the source of the Okavango River. Note the two sub-catchments in what is one of the remotest regions of southern Africa, inaccessible by road, aircraft or boat. It is going to take a multi-national effort to conserve one of the world’s last functioning wilderness areas. (Google Earth 2012)
LandSat 1979
Satellite image of the Okavango Delta during the peak of the 1979 flood. A different world back then and far fewer threats this system. This one-of-a-kind alluvial fan will hopefully be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June this year. We need to celebrate our last true wilderness areas! (LandSat 1979)

Alarming impacts of global warming

Global warming is heating up the Kalahari Sand Basin rapidly with devastating consequences for the Okavango Delta. Dr Piotr Wolski, formerly of the Okavango Research Centre and now at the University of Cape Town, explains the impact of climate change on the sensitive Okavango Delta system:

“The air is warmer in the climate we are experiencing and the river takes a long time to flow down to the Delta, so you get more evaporation occurring before the river even reaches the Delta, and thus fewer high floods. Rainfall was not very different between the two sets of simulations, but in any case it would have to have been quite a big change in rainfall in order to match the difference in evaporation.”

The Okavango Delta and the river system is under stress already and any interventions must be carefully considered. We need to discuss adaptation funding to minimise social and environmental impacts by maintaining rapid flow in the river and minimising off-take for irrigation, canals or cultivation of floodplains. We urgently need to survey and study the length of the main river, sub-catchments and tributaries to identify areas of conservation importance around which to build new protected areas.

This year the floods are even lower and slower than last year when the expedition had near no water (see figure below). In 2013, we had to pull the “mokoros” (dug-out canoes) across dry floodplains, channels and islands almost half of the time.

Annual flow rates of the floodwaters entering the Okavango Delta as a measure of the magnitude of the annual flood (1984-2014). (Aliboats / www.aliboats.com)
Annual flow rates of the floodwaters entering the top of the Okavango Delta as a measure of the magnitude of the annual flood over time (1984-2014). (Aliboats / www.aliboats.com)

The 2014 expedition will coincide with the lowest possible flood levels without making passage impossible. This timing concentrates most of the wildlife along the last flowing channels we are finding and poling down. A unique opportunity to census wildlife and survey biodiversity on a transect through the inaccessible central delta.

Every year our hardships in crossing the Okavango Delta due to lack of floodwaters highlights the immediate impacts of global warming. It is getting so hot in winter now that more and more of the water is evaporating from the river before reaching the delta. Saving the Okavango Delta is our responsibility of all of us as global citizens and agents in the demise of this delicate wilderness.

"Lily reflection" The perfect form and beauty of the day lily is a wonderful metaphor for the pristine Okavango Delta. (Andrew Schoeman / andrewschoemanphotography.co.za)
“Lily reflection” The perfect form and beauty of the day lily is a wonderful metaphor for the pristine Okavango Delta. (Andrew Schoeman / andrewschoemanphotography.co.za)

2015 Okavango River Expedition 

The 2015 Okavango River Expedition will explore the Cuito Subcatchment in the Angolan highlands, passing just over 1,200 miles down the length of the river through Namibia’s Caprivi Strip and across the Okavango Delta over 3 months. There will be seven experts on the 2015 expedition, focussing on gathering the environmental, biodiversity and social data necessary to motivate the establishment of new protected areas. The Okavango Wilderness Project is a long-term community-based conservation project that aims to establish a well-protected landscape within a multi-national UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Steve poling past a large pod of hippos, some elephant, lechwe and abundant birdlife near Mombo Camp in the heart of the Okavango Delta. Just look at this place! One our last true paradises ruled by wild animals. (Paul Steyn)
Steve poling past a large pod of hippos, some elephant, lechwe and abundant birdlife near Mombo Camp in the heart of the Okavango Delta. Just look at this place! One our last true paradises ruled by wild animals. (Paul Steyn)

This is the world’s most important conservation opportunities and one of our last chance to save a vast untouched landscape representative of our ancient past.

There are few places on Earth that are so grand, so magnificent because of the resident wildlife. We have the magnificent mountains of Europe and the Americas with rarely-ever seen bears, but few refuges for wildlife remain that bewilder, amaze and stun like these scenes from the central wilderness of the Okavango Delta:

Mario Moreno / mariomorenophotography.com
“Sunset stalker!” This lioness was stalking a group of lechwe on the other side of a flooded area in the Okavango Delta (Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana). (Mario Moreno / mariomorenophotography.com)
Sparring lechwe, by guide Brendon Cremer. A couple of Lechwe spar in the early morning as the sun rises, the dust from the rest of the herd as they move back towards the marsh adding some great mood and drama to the image. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (Brendon Cremer / brendoncremerphotography.com)
“Sparring lechwe” The golden Okavango light of the early morning speaks to the soul… (Brendon Cremer / brendoncremerphotography.com)
Steve Boyes
The abundance of life on a floodplain in the center of the Okavango Delta. Wildlife in the Moremi Game Reserve has not been hunted for generations and have always been seen as the “royal hunting grounds”. A place on Earth that needs to be preserved. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Migrating elephants spread across the fertile floodplains of Mombo where some of the world’s most pristine wilderness remains… (Steve Boyes)
Giraffe herd, by guide Andy Biggs. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (andybiggs.com)
Giraffe herd, by guide Andy Biggs. Photographed in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (andybiggs.com)
Mother leopard and cub, by guide Chad Cocking. “Nthombi leopardess and her cub share a cuddle in some long grass on an island in the Nhlaralumi Riverbed.” Photographed at Motswari Game Reserve, Timbavati, South Africa.
“Mother leopard and cub”, by guide Chad Cocking. “Nthombi leopardess and her cub share a cuddle in some long grass on an island.”

High resolution satellite imagery of the Kavango Basin will be used to prioritise areas along the river for exploration and survey work. Bespoke Apps linked to automated cameras and microphones, satellite connectivity and WiFi, advanced GPS and satellite imagery, and a team of experts make the ground survey and exploration of the Cuito Sub-catchment possible. Slow, careful passage down the river on traditional dug-out canoes will introduce us to the people of the river. We will trade with them, learn their language, and hold community meetings along the way to measure support for conservation. Our baYei guides and mentors from the Okavango Delta will meet the community upriver that have heritage rights to the catchments that keeps their delta alive.

We hope to create an indigenous knowledge network along the entire length of the Okavango River that enables networking and information-sharing.

Our aim is to create a strong, active network of local stakeholders able to represent the interests of local communities as a voice for the river itself. Local communities see large mining, industrial and agricultural developments very differently from the developers and politician in Luando or Windhoek looking to increase GDP and broker foreign investment. Rapid development will come to the Kavango Basin and we need the local villages and communities along the river to be ready.

2011 Okavango Expedition: Tom playing music for the campfire gathering. (Chris Boyes)
2011 Okavango Expedition: Tom playing music for the campfire gathering. (Chris Boyes)

The way forward…

The Okavango Delta is so amazing and filled with wonder, because it is so delicate and improbable. It is unbelievable that, in our day-and-age, such a place still exists. There are, however, currently no protected areas in a vast catchment the size of Texas. See satellite images below. Areas in western Zambia are similarly undeveloped and wild. If we protect elephant corridors along the main tributaries of the Zambezi, Kwando and Kavango catchments, we may be able to protect ancient migration routes for the world’s largest-remaining elephant population and other wildlife. As a global community, we need to protect the “beating heart of Africa” by investing in the establishment of a world-class system of protected areas and “wildlife management areas” (i.e. only ecotourism and hunting) in the Angolan highlands.

There are most likely diamonds, uranium, and rare earth minerals in those Kalahari sands, and both Angola and Namibia needs food and water. Mining exploration, agricultural development, infrastructure, energy projects and population increase march onward in a prosperous Angola. We need to strengthen the case for a conservation-focussed landscape development plan that “future-proof” valuable, currently unprotected, ecosystems and landscapes in these mighty highlands. What happened to the Colorado Delta in just decades, could happen to the Okavango Delta in years. The Okavango is an alluvial fan in the middle of the Kalahari Sand Basin. If the floods and rains did not arrive, the Okavango Delta would dry up within two years.

2013 Okavango Expedition Team after an epic 324km journey across a very dry and difficult Okavango Delta for the annual wetland bird survey. (Paul Steyn)
2013 Okavango Expedition Team after an epic 340km journey across a very dry and difficult Okavango Delta for the annual wetland bird survey. The same core team is embarking on the 2014 Okavango Expedition. (Paul Steyn)

Follow our new Facebook page to stay up-to-date on developments in the Okavango Wilderness Project: www.facebook.com/okavangowildernessproject

Visit the newly updated Wild Bird Trust website to learn more about our projects in the Okavango Delta: www.wildbirdtrust.com

See this amazing video from the 2013 Okavango Expedition: Into the Okavango 2013

Visit the new Okavango Wilderness Project website to learn more about the project launch during the 2014 Okavango Expedition: okavangowildernessproject.org

See this amazing collection of photographs from the 2013 Okavango Expedition: newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/10/08/best-photographs-2013-okavango-expedition/

See this recent article on intotheokavango.orgwww.magazine.theascender.org/issue-01/digital-delta/

Comments

  1. Ima Ryma
    April 20, 12:15 pm

    Filmmakers film the wilderness,
    In hope that such will help persuade
    To preserve more, to destroy less.
    But where there’s money to be made,
    The profiteers will find a way
    In any wilderness there is,
    To ravage nature for payday,
    Past, present, future – human biz.
    Preserving nature – some do try
    To save the wilderness dire fate,
    But greed is winning by and by.
    For wilderness it is too late.

    Too soon all wilderness will be
    Just on old films for folks to see.