Every year, the Okavango River brings an infusion of crystal clear, life-giving water into an otherwise arid landscape. That water attracts and sustains over half a million tons of ecological engineering equipment in the form of elephants: tusks carve watering holes, trunks pull up roots, sheer tonnage clears vegetation, and they disperse and deposit seeds into the ground. With elephants paving the way, smaller herbivores can move in―free to migrate through floodplains and open savanna, consuming vegetation spread by the elephants and, fueled by pollinator insects and nutrient-recycling microbial life. Apex predators, including lions, cheetahs, and wild dogs, move in, drawn to the growing populations of prey herbivores. The Okavango Delta does not just appear in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, it is built. In a perfectly balanced cycle renewed each year by trillions of gallons of water that flood the landscape at the height of Botswana’s dry winter.
People are also part of the life cycle; land is farmed by communities around the Delta, and Botswana benefits from income generated by a tourism industry based on the visual spectacle of an oasis supporting many rare and iconic species. In Botswana, the cycle is prosperous, thanks to protected area status given to the Delta—humans protect the land through sustainable livelihoods, and the biodiversity that thrives creates an income based on protecting that land. It’s an ecosystem in balance, but the Okavango Delta is only part of a much wider landscape that’s not only unprotected, it’s under threat.
Beginning when ornithologist Dr. Steve Boyes noticed that numbers of wetland birds in the Delta were decreasing, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) was established to find the cause. Literally following the water system upward―north through Namibia and into Angola―the NGOWP team discovered that the source lakes in the miombo woodlands and the rivers that form the Okavango River—the Cuito River especially—are vulnerable to the effects of deforestation caused by human activities such as hunting and agriculture. To secure formal protections of these waterways, the NGOWP has spent the past seven years collecting data and documenting biodiversity across the entire Okavango Basin, and especially in the Angolan highlands―discovering more than 50 species confirmed to be new to science, with another 81 currently under review.
Biodiversity is one of the strongest indicators of the health of an ecosystem: generally, the richer an ecosystem is, the greater its ability to provide humans and wildlife with food, clean air, and water. If biodiversity decreases, important links in the chain are lost, and the system could begin to fail. Any new creature discovered could be a keystone species that helps to define an entire ecosystem, a keystone “mutualist” whose disappearance or change in interactions will affect another dependent species, or an indicator species, a species whose response to external influences like pollution or climate change is an early warning that a habitat is suffering.
Having completed these initial biodiversity surveys, the NGOWP is embarking on its next phase of conservation work with leading diamond company De Beers through the Okavango Eternal partnership. With its own Building Forever commitment to create positive impacts for the people and countries where its diamonds are discovered, De Beers has set ambitious goals for protecting the natural world and creating a positive outcome for biodiversity. Having operated its own nature reserves within southern Africa for almost 130 years, De Beers is bringing conservation experience along with financial support to the partnership.
Part of this next phase of conservation work includes the continued study of the newly discovered species and general ecosystem monitoring by local scientists and students whose research and further education will be funded by Okavango Eternal through scholarships in Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. In addition, Okavango Eternal will fund the expansion of a research camp in Botswana. This research should go a long way toward helping the cause for preserving not only the largest remaining intact area of miombo woodland in Africa, but also the space that connects Angola to Botswana to form one of the largest protected wildlife corridors in the world.
Ongoing research can determine a species’ role within a habitat: the less that’s known about a newly discovered species, the greater the motivation there will be to preserve the habitat in which it is found. The 50 species new to science indicate a high level of endemism around the source lakes—these species only exist within these habitats, and are likely to disappear if the habitats are lost. For example, a recently discovered species of baboon spider, a type of tarantula, is larger than those found outside of Angola and sports a soft “horn” on its back. But the role of this arachnid accessory is unknown: Could it be a means of storing additional energy for survival in an otherwise harsh landscape? This is a fascinating riddle in the right circles, and could be used as one of many compelling reasons to strengthen or redefine the boundaries or designations of protected areas. While governments, conservation organizations, and local communities have already created a transfrontier area in the greater Okavango River Basin to allow for large-scale animal migrations, the aim of the partnership is to specifically safeguard the life-giving waterways through a system of formerly protected areas that might include national parks, local community-owned conservancies, and game reserves.
Elephants follow these waterways, building an ecosystem and keeping it balanced. But too many elephants in one place means they’re no longer builders, but bulldozers—consuming more plant life than is sustainable, wandering into human settlements, and trampling crops in their search for food. Years of conflict during Angola’s civil war left scars on the country’s landscape―and on its elephants. Researchers observed that some elephants quickly learned to detect leftover landmines that were still killing both humans and elephants, and not only avoid them, but trumpet warnings to other elephants to stay away, too. But, still, in Angola elephants disappeared, migrating south to nearby Botswana, concentrating elephant populations there and leading to conflict with humans. If the way back home can be re-opened, returning elephants can help engineer a wildlife superhighway that reconnects the ecosystem, from the top of Angola to the bottom of the Delta, source to sand.
Elephant populations now established elsewhere won’t return to Angola by themselves, though. A herd’s unique behavioral and survival instincts mean they need to be “told” it’s safe to do so first, in this case, by a small group of elephants thought to still inhabit the Lisima Lya Mwono (“Source of Life”) landscape—the 110,000-square-kilometre (42,470-square-mile) area of the miombo woodland that Okavango Eternal aims to help protect. Traumatized by decades of human conflict, the ‘ghost elephants’ of Lisima, as the NGOWP calls them, avoid all human contact, but if these elephants can be observed remotely, experts will be able to develop the best strategy for reintegrating them with their kin across the Basin to reconnect a corridor through which wildlife can once again move freely.
Protecting the landscape that keeps water to the Delta flowing won't succeed without collaboration with local communities. Okavango Eternal aims to work with communities within the Lisima landscape to develop 10,000 livelihood opportunities based on conserving the land and the wildlife corridor across the Basin. And progress is already happening in Angola, starting with the engagement of around 30 communities to explore sustainable alternative livelihoods. So far, 150 new beehives incorporating production-boosting designs and harvesting techniques have been set up in a trial project to support honeybees and provide stronger links between local communities, beekeepers, and Angola’s honey industry. If this effort proves successful, there are plans to create co-ops to promote more sustainable agriculture, including working with rural farmers to introduce more sustainable agriculture methods that utilize and replenish local ecosystems.
And finding Lisima’s elephants? That’s also a local initiative in its early stages. Communities working with the partnership are deploying remote cameras designed to monitor the movements of larger mammals in the forest to help determine ecosystem health. Spotting even a single elusive “ghost” elephant will mean big progress for the future of what could become one of the continent’s most important wildlife corridors.
Find out more about how De Beers creates positive impacts here.