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Okavango Wilderness Project

Okavango Wilderness Project

Icthyology team, Adjany Costa and Paul Skelton
Icthyology team, Adjany Costa and Paul Skelton


Byline:  Steve Boyes

with Liz Hilton-Gray, Okavango Wilderness Project

twitter: @intotheokavango

Instagram: intotheokavango

Facebook: Okavango wilderness project   

Seven mekoro and hundreds of kilograms of batteries, food supplies, advanced research equipment, cameras and expedition gear are making their way down the length of the Cuito River in Angola, past the junction with the Cubango River, across the Okavango Delta, and all the way to the end of the Boteti River in a ‘Source-to-Sand’ expedition.

The Wild Bird Trust (WBT) has poled itself across the Okavango Delta every year since 2010 to better understand the relationship between the wetland bird species and the annual flood. The UNESCO World Heritage listing of the Okavango in June last year was our call-to-action to expand our research and include the entire Cubango-Okavango River Basin, the world’s largest undeveloped river catchment. Our core objective is the preservation of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, but any attempt to preserve it will be futile if we do not also protect its source waters.

This year, the WBT launched the Okavango Wilderness Project, supported by National Geographic, which will be conducting a biodiversity assessment of the entire length of the river, in collaboration with a number of scientists from the southern African region and abroad. We have Prof Bill Branch (reptiles), Prof Nigel Barker (plants), Prof Paul Skelton (fish), Dr David Goyder (plants), Dr Werner Conradie (reptiles), Gotz Neef (insects and aquatics), Adjany Costa (fish) and Maans Booysen (birds) along with several local experts and research assistants who are joining this ground-breaking expedition. Our partners at Kew Gardens (Surrey) recently identified the upper catchment of the Cuito River above Cuito Cuanavale as the “least sampled location on the planet for botanical diversity”.

We want to meet the people of the river, learn the river’s secrets and make sure that one of the most pristine river catchments in the world remains as an example of the way things could be. We are committed to preserving the Okavango River in its current state by empowering governments with the information they need to support sustainable development and wildlife conservation.

The project has been whole-heartedly accepted by Angola, Namibia and Botswana. We have been endorsed by the President of Angola and met with two Governors and the Minister of Environment. In June we flew out from the expedition for a signing ceremony with the Minister and a two hour seminar sharing our research findings so far.

This day was a huge success with solid commitments from the Angolan government to support and fund the project for the next few years. We have discovered many possible new records of fish, aquatic insects, and plants. Maans Booysen has already picked up several new bird records for the Angola list. We even have samples from an unknown duiker species that appears to be new to science.

All the way up here in this forgotten, inaccessible landscape we have confirmed the presence of lion, leopard, hyaena, wild dog, bush pig, warthog, sitatunga, oribi, reedbuck, lechwe, hippo, crocodile and much more: high records of wattled crane, crocodile, tiger fish, and hippo in the river system. We also discovered an unknown, unnamed waterfall in the upper catchment. This place is a hidden treasure and needs to be protected. The fate of the Okavango River Basin lies with the Angolan government right now and I am confident that they will protect it from unnecessary development and any further degradation.

The expedition was launched on 22 May, 2015 at the source lake of the Cuito River. Initially the going was tough as the river was not wide enough to pole and we spent days dragging the mekoro. A hippo attack which damaged the mekoro left the team shaken, but served as a reminder never to forget where you are. By August we had crossed into Namibia where the occurrence of people and tourism operators increased. We are hoping to reach the Delta in mid- August and hope to complete the expedition in early September.

National Geographic is producing a one hour special, a feature magazine article and a large-format coffee table book based on this expedition. We are incredibly lucky to have Neil Gelinas (filmmaker), Cory Richards (photographer) and Alexandra Fuller (writer) working on this project.

From the onset, this expedition has been about collaboration, research and open source data. We have a solar panel, satellite transmitters and enough technology to bring our audience along for the experience. The public can follow our expedition live at They will be able to ask us questions via twitter, view images on instagram (both @intotheokavango), facebook: Okavango Wilderness Project, follow our GPS coordinates, and monitor our biometrics. We will be sharing our data and findings with the Southern African Regional Environmental Program, the Okavango River Commission and the Kavango-Zambezi Secretariat. We would love you to join along and support us.