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#Okavango14: Monitoring the Delta From the Front Lines

On the expedition into the Okavango, a diverse range of expertise is needed to make the mission as successful as possible. If new boundaries are to be drawn to protect greater expanses of this unique and critical sanctuary, every facet of the campaign, from media and outreach to wayfaring and data collection must be tended to with great gusto. Accordingly, each member of our team comes with a unique set of skills to contribute to this expedition.

Expedition leader Dr. Steve Boyes, originally from South Africa, has spent the last 12 years of his life studying the delta and has a wealth of knowledge and connections there. Shah Selbe, a brilliant and creative engineer with Boeing’s satellite program, has built the research platforms the team will place in the delta. Jer Thorp, who co-founded the Office for Creative Research, built the expedition’s incredible multimedia website intotheokavango.org.

Wild dog, Botswana. (Photo by Gregg Treinish)

On this trip, I’ll be scouting a potential future project for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit organization that works to catalyze conservation efforts worldwide by mobilizing volunteers and the local baYei tribesmen to gather scientific data. My goal is to ensure that the region is protected beyond just paper documents for years to come, and to ensure that upstream influences aren’t having a negative effect on this pristine ecosystem.

The delta as seen from space. (Image courtesy ESA)

If ASC moves forward with the project—which will be based on a question of operating safely in the region—our volunteers will be managing the remote wildlife platforms. We will be monitoring the delta’s fragile ecosystem from the front lines, collecting data for Steve and his team at the Okavango Wilderness Project. They will use it to ensure this area is protected for years to come.

This fits ASC’s mission. The projects we take on must have the potential for a strong conservation outcome. Because the Okavango is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there’s legislation we can leverage to ensure upstream influences like mining, agriculture and tourism aren’t having detrimental effects.

Additionally, we want to use the delta as the foundation of a larger area that, when complete, would represent the first ever triple-nation World Heritage Site that would extend into Namibia and Angola.

Interview With Gregg Treinish

By Emily Stifler Wolfe

ESW: You visited the Limpopo-Lipadi preserve in southeastern Botswana last year. Why did you want to return to the country?
GT: Since I was a little kid, lions, hippos, crocodiles, hyenas and elephants have captured my imagination. To see them all in a natural, unchanged and unmanaged ecosystem is a lifelong dream. The Okavango, to me, is an incredible pristine wilderness that I worry I won’t be able to see in 10 years if something isn’t done.

ESW: How will this trip be different?
GT: Last year I scouted a totally different project and saw a different type of conservation—one that’s managed, with electrified fences keeping wildlife in. In a lot of ways, it’s the polar opposite of what I’ll experience in the Okavango.

ESW: What’s the plan for data collection?
GT: We’ll be recording wildlife sightings on Google Nexus 7 tablets, which will be available in real time on the website. The research platforms we set up will record video and audio, as well as other environmental conditions. Through the sonograms, we’ll measure subtle changes in amphibian life over time, which is important because amphibians’ sounds are the first things that will change as an ecosystem changes.

Elephant, Okavango Delta, Botswana. (Photo by Erin Johnson)

ESW: You’ll be camping on islands in the delta. Don’t most of them start as termite mounds?
GT: I’ve seen termite mounds that are 20 feet tall! They start that way and grow over time as debris and sediment moves through. There are over 10,000 islands in the delta.

ESW: I’ve read that the water level and size of the delta change drastically. Which season will you be there?
GT: It swells from 9,000-square miles to 13,500—it’s quite phenomenal how these floodwaters expand the range. It’s a little counter-intuitive, because the water arrives across the delta at the start of the dry season in May. This is because the river rises in the Angolan highlands, 500 kilometers northwest, and it takes months for it to filter downstream.

ESW: Where do the animals go during the dry season?
GT: They come from around northern Botswana to the delta, because everything else will have dried up. It’s the best time for wildlife viewing.

giraffe
Giraffes, Botswana. (Photo by Gregg Treinish)

ESW: Can the public visit the delta?
GT: Anyone can go to parts of the Okavango Delta. The parts we’re going to visit are very remote, and it’s likely that only the people who will be on our expedition have been there.

ESW: Are you scared about the carnivore encounters?
GT: While I’ve had really close encounters with grizzly bears and other wildlife, I’ve never been in an ecosystem with dozens of things that can be potentially dangerous. That does scare me.

Gregg poles a mokoro in South Africa. (Photo courtesy Gregg Treinish)

ESW: Steve has a lot of experience, right?
GT: Yes, and we’ll be with four local baYei tribesmen.

ESW: How will you get around?
GT: I’ll be poling, which means standing up in the back of the mokoro and pushing along the bottom of the ground. You need to be able to see up over the reeds and to see the wildlife coming from all directions.

ESW: So if you go in the water, the guy you’re with does, too?
GT: If we flip, yes. The mokoros are pretty unstable–they’re 16 feet long, and only two feet wide. There is no going in. It’s not an option.

ESW: Why?
GT: Because crocodiles will eat you.

Gregg Treinish is Executive Director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. Learn more at adventurescience.org/okavango, on our Field Notes blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+. Stay tuned for opportunities to get involved in future Okavango expeditions.

Read More by Gregg Treinish and His Correspondents