Northwestern Botswana's wildlife ecosystem is under increasing threat from human population growth, livestock overgrazing and poaching, especially around the periphery of the world-famous Okavango Delta. With the support of Oak Foundation, we have recently activated two boreholes in a remote dryland region located west of the Okavango, for exclusive use by migratory wildlife. These new solar powered water points are intended to help stabilize wildlife populations under threat from drought and the progressive loss of wildlife access to traditional dry season grazing areas, in particular along the western fringes of the Okavango (see map).
Conserving and rehabilitating these migratory wildlife populations is vital to empowering local communities intent on participating in the tourism industry. Poverty eradication and the development of sustainable livelihoods is also essential to the effective conservation of wildlife and the protection of the greater globally significant wilderness landscape.
If implemented conservatively, boreholes in uninhabited areas west of the Okavango, can help to stabilize and rehabilitate wildlife populations. In some instances they may also have the potential to provide focal points for the creation of community-owned campsites catering to the still-untapped self-drive adventure tourism markets (based on an unfenced land-use approach which we strongly advocate for this still largely unfragmented landscape). They can also play a valuable role in providing alternative resource areas for wildlife to help reduce regional conflicts, particularly related to elephants and predators.
The Okavango Delta is but one part of a much larger regional ecosystem that must be protected, and recognition of the importance of the dryland areas to the West is finally gaining traction in conservation circles. Rehabilitating connectivity between habitats in Botswana and Namibia that were once historically linked, is key to ensuring long-term ecological resilience and unlocking the region's full tourism and sustainable wildlife use potential. Failure to conserve the ecosystem as a whole will ultimately undermine the long-term viability of the Okavango and other increasingly geographically-isolated protected areas where tourism is primarily focussed and has already reached saturation point. Growth in the tourism sector - and further employment - will not be possible without creating opportunities in these outerlying ecologically-connected areas. This requires careful and unconventional approaches to tourism development that won't undermine the more important unique selling points of the dryland areas, namely their wilderness and cultural attributes.
Over the past four months we have been engaging with local communities, government agencies, solar borehole contractors, field teams and other conservation organizations in planning, equipping and monitoring two new boreholes (see map). The hard work is already paying off - a variety of mammal and bird species (many suffering acute dehydration stress) have been quick to respond to the water points and we believe this will help to reduce wildlife mortality rates in the general area. Community members have been employed to actively monitor and guard the sites and camera traps are also being used to guage wildlife responses.
We would like to thank the equipment and installation contractors (Sunray Solar, Water Africa) and Ben Heermans (Habu Elephant Development Trust) and the Trustees of Morama Trust (Chris Kruger and Peter Stevens) for their project support. A special thanks is also due to Dan Kelly, Luisa Hemling, Kashe Nxauwe, Dahm Xixae and the assigned Ju/hoansi San community team members, who have all gone the extra mile, and under extremely challenging conditions, to help prepare, oversee and monitor the sites and liaise with the communities.
Although much progress has been made to date, we rely on donations to continue our work. Urgent additional funding assistance (8,500 USD) is needed to help cover the ongoing costs of maintaining and monitoring these sites for at least the next 3 months. This will primarily be used cover wages, food, transportation, monitoring and resupply costs for the support crews and community team members stationed at these remote locations. Protection of the sites from poachers is also particularly important at this time. The observed climatic trend has been of increasingly erratic and late rainfall, and we do not expect local habitat conditions to improve before late January or February 2020.
Above: The new Western community-owned borehole now being regularly visited by elephants, zebra, roan, gemsbok, kudu, leopard, hyena and other wildlife. The wildlife populations of this remote area are highly valued by the local Ju/haonsi San community as a tourism and culturla heritage resource, but have been in danger of decline this year due to the extreme drought conditions and resultant dehydration stress and loss of condition. Wildlife further afield and closer to human habitation are even more vulnerable due to lack of protection. Only very limited supplies of borehole water have been available in neighbouring Namibia (Nyae-nyae consrevancy) and the border fence, although broken down in places, may still be difficult for willdife to cross over. The general lack of dry season water availability for wildlife is clearly evident in the above map.
Historically, this wildlife would normally move southwards in the dry season, towards the fossil river valley where the Qangwa, Mahopa and Dobe villages are situated. Today however, those areas are heavily disturbed and severely degraded by cattle overgrazing, rendering the natural springs there severely depleted and no longer accessible to wildlife - except to some degree, elephants.
This new remote water point, together with the Eastern (Morama) borehole, thus now provides relatively safe refuge and is valuable mitigation for the loss of wildlife access to southerly ancestral dry season ranges and to ranges along the Western Okavamgo delta. Zebra from as far afield as the western Okavango, 120km to the East, have also recently arrived. More elephants are expected to arrive soon from the conflict areas, on account of increasing incidents of poaching, shooting by farmers, and the recent issuing of citizen hunting licences (after an absence of hunting pressure of 10 years) - all of which are increasing stress levels in herds located there.
Below: Eastern (Morama) borehole owned by Morama Trust which was last operated as a diesel-pump wildlife borehole more than 5 years ago and has now been reactivated as a solar borehole under this project. The assigned staff are tasked with regular monitoring and patrols into the surrounding area to assess wildife movements and responses to the water point. One of our objectives is to provide water to the largest remaining subpopulation of zebra still linked to the western delta (Ikoga lagoon area), which has been hard hit by the extremely low flood levels in the Delta this year and intrusion of new cattle posts in some important summer breeding ranges.