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See all Great Stories by Roddy Bray

In northern Botswana we found areas like the Okavango Delta and the Chobe teeming with wildlife, and ecotourism making a major contribution to the economy.

Two Deltas - Chobe, Botswana [2010 © greatguides.org]

In northern Botswana we found areas like the Okavango Delta and the Chobe teeming with wildlife, and ecotourism making a major contribution to the economy. Yet just to the north, across the rivers in Namibia's Caprivi region we hardly saw a single animal or bird… not even the ubiquitous monkeys. We began to ask why the contrast should be so stark.

As we have travelled through Africa, we have seen the potential of ecotourism to preserve wildlife and tackle poverty. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in northern Botswana. The north of the country is almost entirely reserved for wildlife, and is famous for its predators and home to over 120,000 elephants. In particular, the Okavango River fans into the Kalahari desert, creating a vast region of rivers, islands and waterways. This delta was referred to dismissively as 'the swamps' at the time of independence, of no economic value. Today it has become the premier wildlife area in southern Africa, with lodges charging as much as $1,000 per person/ night. Tourism recently became the No.2 earner for Botswana (after diamonds) overtaking its strong cattle industry. But over the border, in the Caprivi region of Namibia, the contrast is striking.

Two Deltas - Okavango River, Botswana [2010 © greatguides.org] - Ecotourism:  A Tale Of Two Deltas - Great Guides

Namibia's Caprivi, a corridor of land that separates Botswana from Angola and Zambia is, if anything, even better suited to wildlife than northern Botswana. It too has a delta system, Mamili. It shares the Chobe and Kwando rivers with Botswana. On the south bank, in Botswana, there are huge herds of elephant and large numbers of other species, but in the two weeks we spent in the Caprivi we saw hardly any wildlife. The Caprivi, in fact has advantages over the land to the south. It has large grasslands and the Zambezi River on its northern border.

Tourism is thriving in the Okavango Delta

The Caprivi should be even more abundant in wildlife than Botswana, and huge herds should be migrating across the rivers. Yet Caprivi statistics from 2008 shows that wildlife numbers are tiny – most species in the Kwando region, home to most of the nature reserves, have less than 100 members. Only 0.1% of the population were employed in ecotourism full time, and the total income from all safari concessions was little more than $500,000 p.a., and almost all of this was from hunting. The contrast with Botswana could not be sharper.

Investigating this contrast I found a story of Army Generals. The South African army occupied the Caprivi in the 1970s and 1980s, a frontline buffer in its war with Angola. The apartheid generals developed a 'sideline' in hunting. Giraffe, eland and black rhino were eliminated altogether. As animal stocks declined the army tried to stop local communities from hunting. Local communities had traditionally hunted for meat and to protect their crops and villages. Anti-poaching teams burst into villages, kicking over cooking pots and searching for meat. This hypocritical and insensitive approach created a deep hostility to conservation.

On the Botswana side there was a very different military leadership. Poaching was also rife in northern Botswana. Rhino was wiped out by the early '80s. But General Ian Khama, who is now the country's President, posted his troops throughout the nature reserves of the north. With conscripts (like Paul Moleseng – see our Guides) they patrolled wildlife areas. Anybody found poaching was to be treated as an insurgent, and shot on sight. Meanwhile the government leased concessions to tourism companies, like Wilderness Safaris, who in turn protected areas from poaching, and began projects to monitor and re-introduce wildlife. From the mid-1980s wildlife populations began to recover in northern Botswana. Education programmes (like Children in the Wilderness – see posts) and income from the growing tourism industry gave human populations around the parks a positive view of conservation.

Whilst Botswana took rapid strides forward, the Caprivi had all but lost its wildlife at independence in 1989. Local communities were hostile to conservation and human populations were growing rapidly. Small national parks were declared, but even today they lack fencing to protect wildlife from poachers. Animals on the Botswana side would not cross the rivers, wise to the danger on the northern banks. A great deal of effort has gone into trying to change community attitudes in Namibia.

Children | Two Deltas - Okavango River, Botswana [2012 © greatguides.org] - Ecotourism:  A Tale Of Two Deltas - Great Guides
Ecotourism benefits social development in Botswana

By law, lodges must pay communities directly for concessions and, in 30 years, hand them over to the community. This has worked in some areas of Namibia like !Doros Nawas, but not in the Caprivi. It is catch-22. For tourism operators the region is unattractive – working with communities is slow and very difficult. Meanwhile, there is little wildlife to attract tourists. As for the communities, the income from ecotourism is small and they remain suspicious of conservation. Why allow elephants to trample your crops or have lions near your village for almost no return?

Two Deltas - Caprivi, Namibia [2010 © greatguides.org] - Ecotourism:  A Tale Of Two Deltas - Great Guides

I think the moral of the tale is about timing and approach. Botswana declared huge parks at independence in the 1960s. Human populations in the north were still very small; and these communities were moved out of the parks. This was done by law, but in a humane way – the President (Seretse Khama), personally led negotiations with communities. Then, in the 1980s, they enforced anti-poaching with the greatest vigour, and at the same time encouraged private tourism by granting exclusive concessions.

Namibia is promoting conservation through community conservancies
By contrast Namibia inherited a mess at its independence in 1989. Human populations in the Caprivi had grown, and could not be re-allocated to create large reserves. Community hostility toward wildlife ran deep. Through 'community owned concessions' Namibia is trying to change attitudes and create income for communities... but from what we saw, this approach seems to be a very long way from transforming the Caprivi into a region that can begin to rival the great reserves of Botswana, just across the rivers.

However, hope for the Caprivi is growing. 'KAZA', a 'megapark', linking reserves across southern Africa into one continuous wildlife reserve the size of Italy, has now been agreed. This trans-frontier park will surround the Caprivi on all sides, and corridors are planned across the Caprivi, to facilitate the safe passage of wildlife, especially the migration of elephants. The success of these corridors – their perceived economic benefits and the safety of wildlife - may yet spur on ecotourism across the Caprivi. For more information on KAZA see www.peaceparks.org See also Zeke Davidson's profile for more on wildlife / human conflict.

Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 04 Sep 2010
Location: Southern Africa, Worldwide | Botswana, Namibia
Themes: geographic, natural world | conservation, parks and trails, fauna, safari