The primary goal of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) is to preserve the greater Okavango Basin in its current near-pristine state by establishing a network of new protected areas.
Increasing access to this near-pristine wilderness and mounting pressure to develop in the region has made securing legal protection more urgent than ever to preserve Angola’s biodiversity treasures and the freshwater resources of the entire Okavango system for future generations.
The NGOWP has identified a region where the headwaters of the Okavango, Cuando, Zambezi, and Kwanza Rivers originate as the key to the long-term conservation of the water tower. The team’s multiyear data sets will serve as the scientific foundation to establish one of the largest transboundary-protected areas in sub-Saharan Africa spanning the four nations that share the Okavango River Basin: Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Angola.
Supporting Local Action
Photograph by Kostadin Luchansky
The NGOWP is working to support the Angolan government and its Ministries of Tourism and Environment in protecting these remote watersheds and developing and implementing a conservation plan for the Okavango system.
In addition to the Angolan government, NGOWP has partnered with regional secretariats, NGOs, and local communities to help establish community-based alternative livelihood cooperatives for sustainable agriculture and forestry, watershed management, infrastructure development, education outreach, healthcare, energy and information technology, and protected areas management to support a conservation-based local economy.
Led by National Geographic Fellow Steve Boyes, the NGOWP’s expeditions bring together an interdisciplinary team including Angolan, Namibian, and South African scientists as well as other experts from the region and around the world. Since 2015, they have completed 11 ambitious multiyear expeditions covering more than 6,000 kilometers on foot, in dug-out mekoro (canoes), on fat-tire bikes, in armored vehicles, and on motorcycles from the highlands of Angola—where the source waters of the Okavango Delta originate—to the salt flats of the Makgadikgadi Pan, where the waters reach their terminus.
Year after year, they document the Okavango ecosystem like never before, accumulating vast amounts of data to make it available for scientists, policymakers, educators, and anyone else to explore and use. Their work provides an important baseline for this little-known area—and is essential for securing its permanent protection.
Map by NGS Staff
2019 Annual Okavango Delta Crossing
The team is currently undertaking its 10th annual crossing of the Okavango Delta amid the worst drought conditions in decades. They are traveling along a new transect course exploring the northern channels of the delta.
Meet the Team
With over a decade of experience on the ground and with local partners, Mike Beckner helps advance National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project goals. He has extensive experience in conservation projects across eastern and southern Africa, and works in close collaboration with a wide range of colleagues across the Society, the government of Angola, and the Wild Bird Trust.Back
Kai Collins is a conservation biologist who has spent 13 years working on applied conservation in sub-Saharan Africa, with a special focus on rhinos, threatened species, and the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and protected areas. As director of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, Collins coordinates with the Lisima Watershed Partnership, to help create a network of protected areas across a broad area of southeastern Angola.Back
Wild Bird Trust
South African conservation biologist and National Geographic Fellow Steve Boyes is the founder and chairman of The Wild Bird Trust and leader of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project. With a passion for wilderness and restoration, he works to safeguard the Okavango Delta by leading expeditions to learn more about the ecosystem, and working with local community and government leaders. This work is vital in order to embark on a community-led process of creating a network of protected areas across the project area in southeastern Angola.Back
John Hilton is CEO of The Wild Bird Trust and regional director of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project. Hilton oversees the administration, human resources, finance, and logistics of the project. He also leads outreach efforts with government officials from the three countries in the Okavango River’s watershed to encourage protection of this fragile ecosystem. He has dedicated his life to protecting the African wilderness and sharing his deep appreciation of it with others.Back
Kerllen Costa is the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project's country director in Angola. Costa also works as a research assistant with the project’s science team while on expeditions and is a key link to the remote communities across the project area in southeastern Angola. A citizen of Angolan, he holds a B.Sc. in environmental science and biology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and has experience in zoology and botany.Back
Koketso Mookodi is a conservation educator, community mentor, and the managing director for The Wild Bird Trust in Botswana. A citizen of Botswana, she works closely with communities in the Okavango Delta to educate and empower them on issues of conservation and sustainability. Mookodi has a degree in tourism management and is a Mandela Washington Fellow.Back
As the general manager of the Wild Bird Trust, Sally-Ann Fraser manages human resources and administration. She also assists the team with expedition logistics, events, and other essential supporting functions.Back
Ilda Menezes Cangolo
Ilda Menezes Cangolo is an Angolan who did a completed their undergraduate degree in Earth Science at the University of Stellenbosch. After working for four years in the oil and gas Industry, she has joined the Okavango Wilderness project to help manage the Luanda office part time.Back
Motlalemang “Motty” John was born in the panhandle of the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. She worked for a prominent tourism operator for many years, gaining broad experience in all aspects of the business. Since 2020, John has been working for the Botswana Wild Bird Trust as the office manager, handling the group’s administration and record-keeping.Back
Martin Taylor is the operations director at the Wild Bird Trust for southern Africa. He is responsible for coordinating field operations and ensuring that effective management and operational structures are in place to deliver on the organization’s strategies. He is based in the Lowveld of South Africa in the small town of Hoedspruit.Back
Keamogetse “Castro” Molathegi
Keamogetse “Castro” Molathegi is from northwestern Botswana, along the Okavango Delta, and remains dedicated to the conservation and culture of the area. Molathegi has worked extensively in the hospitality industry around the Delta and is currently the operations manager for the Botswana Wild Bird Trust.Back
Rainer von Brandis
Rainer von Brandis completed his honors and master’s degrees in nature conservation while working intermittently as a freelance guide in South Africa. In 2002, he moved to the Seychelles where he worked to establish security protocols, trained marine rangers, wrote conservation management plans, eradicated invasive species, implemented long-term monitoring programs, and mentored scientific researchers. In 2012, von Brandis completed his doctorate degree in nature conservation, and has been working with the project for the last two years.Back
Stephan Woodborne is the senior accelerator mass spectrometry scientist at iThemba LABS. He obtained a Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Cape Town in 1996 and took up a post-doctoral fellowship in the radiocarbon dating laboratory at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. He ran the Quaternary Dating Research Unit (QUADRU) at the CSIR for 15 years, and in this time introduced luminescence dating to complement the radiocarbon dating facility, and he also diversified the field of stable light isotope analyses in South Africa. His research interests are in paleoscience, climate change, and ecological processes. He has led a long-running program that assesses climate models using past climate variability in South Africa as a test case. He currently manages the stable light isotope laboratory at iThemba LABS, is associate professor at the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, and is associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.Back
Jennifer Fitchett is an Associate Professor of Physical Geography in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. She has published over 50 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, and is a National Research Foundation Y1-rated scientist. Her research is in the discipline of biometeorology, exploring the effects of climate change over long (tens of thousands of years) and short (decadal) timescales on plants, animals and people.Back
Werner Conradie is the curator of herpetology at the Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld), South Africa. He holds a master’s in environmental science and has 10 years of experience studying southern African herpetofauna, with his main research interests focusing on the taxonomy, conservation, and ecology of amphibians and reptiles. He has published numerous scientific papers, and has served on a number of conservation and scientific panels.Back
Ninda Baptista has a master’s in conservation biology from the University of Lisbon. She joined the Okavango Wilderness Project as an assistant herpetologist and has been involved in several of the surveys. Her primary interest is effective conservation, with a focus on conserving priority unprotected areas in Angola. She has experience in research, environmental education, and environmental impact assessments. Her current work at ISCED-Huíla in Angola involves herpetological surveys, monitoring herpetofauna, and participating in a project for the conservation of the Kumbira escarpment forest in Kwanza Sul. NindaBack
Helen Barber-James is a freshwater biologist in the Department of Freshwater Invertebrates at the Albany Museum in South Africa, which houses a collection of more than 1.5 million specimens. She has over 25 years of research experience, which has focused on the biodiversity, systematics, and biogeography of freshwater invertebrates, especially the Ephemeroptera (mayflies). She received a Ph.D. in entomology from Rhodes University in South Africa.Back
Ina Ferreira is currently a Ph.D. student at the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Rhodes University. Her research focuses on the systematics of southern African Leptophlebiidae (Ephemeroptera), using both morphological and molecular approaches. As an entomologist, her interests lie with freshwater insects, particularly the taxonomy, biodiversity and ecology of mayflies (Ephemeroptera). Ferreira received B.Sc. degrees in zoology and entomology at the University of the Free State, and earned a master’s degree in environmental management at the Centre for Environmental Management from UFS.Back
Paul Skelton helps coordinate the specialist survey results and publications of the Okavango Wilderness Project. He is emeritus professor and emeritus managing director of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity at Rhodes University. Author of several books on the fishes of the southern African sub-region, Paul has chaired several International Union for Conservation of Nature committees and discovered many new fish species.Back
David Goyder has catalogued the entire Okavango Wilderness Project plant collection, which is currently housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. Goyder is director and research leader for Africa and Madagascar at Kew, which has been working in Angola to document the flora and fill the large gap in botanical knowledge of the area.Back
Francisco Maiato Pedro Gonçalves
Francisco Maiato Pedro Gonçalves is a biologist associated with the Herbarium of Lubango at ISCED-Huíla, Angola. His previous experience includes working with renowned botanists in the field and assessing the impact of forest fragmentation on the endemic birds of the Angolan escarpment. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in plant ecology at the University of Hamburg, Germany. His interests include plant diversity, tree population dynamics of the Angolan miombo woodlands, and biodiversity conservation, all of which prepared him well for the Okavango Wilderness Project.Back
John Mendelsohn has lived all his life in Africa, and has been residing in Namibia for the past 30 years. A passion for research has driven much of his work in zoology, education, livelihoods, geography, and river systems. He has been published in over 70 scientific papers and 28 books. Most of his recent research has been in Namibia, but he now also works extensively in Angola. Over the past 15 years, Mendelsohn has developed a keen interest in the economies of rural areas, seeking to document and understand relationships between natural resources, land uses, land rights, incomes, savings, opportunities, and constraints in different areas. Rivers in the Kalahari Basin are another special interest, particularly the Cunene, Cuvelai, Okavango, and Cuando River systems.Back
Professor and South African Research Chair on Biodiversity Value & Change at the University of Venda in South Africa, Peter Taylor studies small mammals, such as bats and rodents, for the Okavango Wilderness Project. He is also a core team member at the Centre for Invasion Biology in South Africa.Back
Professor Dan Parker’s research focuses on mammalian terrestrial ecology. An associate professor at the University of Mpumalanga in South Africa, Parker is also active with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Rhodes University in South Africa. For the Okavango Wilderness Project, Parker is leading the surveys of the little-known bat populations of the upper catchments in the Angola highlands.Back
Sina Weier earned an M.Sc. from the Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. She obtained her Ph.D. at the South African Research Chair on Biodiversity Value and Change at the University of Venda, where she currently works as a postdoctoral fellow. Her research is focused on the habitat use and distribution of insectivorous bat species in Southern Africa under the perspectives of land use and climate change.Back
Fenton “Woody” Cotterill BSc (Hons), MSc (Tropical Resource Ecology), Ph.D. is a Research associate at Stellenbosch University. He was previously curator of mammals and principal curator of vertebrates at Bulawayo's Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe. His studies of African vertebrates combine analysis of specimens in worldwide museum collections and fieldwork across central Africa, focused on African mammals, including descriptions of seven new species of mammals. His studies also combine evolutionary biology and geomorphology to decipher the evolution of Africa’s landscapes.Back
Sophie von der Hyden
Sophie von der Heyden is a molecular ecologist. Her research primarily focuses on the conservation and sustainable utilization of species, particularly in the marine environment. She specializes in employing molecular, ecological, and genomics tools to inform spatial planning, working to understand connectivity patterns, resilience and adaptation of species to ongoing and future change, as well as the impacts of changing marine communities on society.Back
Jolanda Roux has a Ph.D. in microbiology, specializing in tree pathology and mycology. She has extensive field work experience in many African countries, both in native and planted forests. She worked as a research scientist in academia for nearly 20 years before moving into the corporate world. She has published numerous scientific papers and served on a number of forestry and plant health related panels. For the Okavango Wilderness Project, Roux is assisting in the identification of the numerous macro-fungi present in the Angolan catchment areas.Back
Tumeletso “Water” Setlabosha has been a wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta for 14 years. Born in Jao in the middle of the Okavango Delta, Setlabosha has a deep understanding of the intricacies of this complex ecosystem. He has been involved with the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project since 2015 and is featured in the documentary Into the Okavango.Back
Gobonamang “GB” Kgetho
Gobonamang “GB” Kgetho is the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project’s lead poler and a member of the Seronga Polers Trust. Kgetho has crossed the Okavango Delta every year since 2010 with project leader Steve Boyes and is an exemplary ambassador of the Okavango Delta and the baYei community. He has a keen interest in the culture and history of indigenous communities.Back
MEDIA AND FILM TEAM
Thalefang Charles is a renowned photographer and travel writer from Botswana who has traveled extensively throughout Botswana and Africa. A journalist by trade, he works for local media houses writing content. Charles has joined the team on expeditions taking him to the source waters of the Okavango and through the beautiful Delta. Inspired by his love for travel, he recently wrote and published a book titled Botswana’s Top 50 Ultimate Experiences.Back
Konstadin Luchansky was born in Bulgaria and has lived in Angola for 28 years. He has a biology undergraduate degree, specializing in ornithology. In 2011 he decided to dedicate himself entirely to his passion for photography, transforming his hobby into a career. Founder of the Angola Image Bank, he has traveled from Cabinda to he has traveled from Cabinda to Cunene photographing Angola and has accompanied the Okavango Wilderness Project team over the years documenting their expeditions.Back
Born in Luanda, Angola, Mauro Sergio travels across Angola documenting the life of local people and nature. While on expedition he spends most of his time taking photos of the team and villagers engaged with the project.Back
Steve Spence specializes in film pre-production and production; his experience spans six continents. From exploring remote tropical islands in the South Pacific to sledding on ice flows in northern Greenland, he has a passion for capturing the natural world on camera. Spence received his bachelor’s degree in television production from Western Kentucky University and is completing his M.F.A. in wildlife film production from Montana State University.Back
Leilamang “Snaps” Kgetho
An ode to an Okavango Delta ambassador
by Thalefang Charles
Leilamang “Snaps” Kgetho was one of the next generation of polers and river navigators destined to be torchbearers in the protection of the Okavango Delta. From the start, it was Steve Boyes’s dream to have young Batswana — local people, especially those from Ngamiland — to be the leading ambassadors of this great wilderness. Snaps was the finest of them; and his sudden passing in January 2020 has left the team heartbroken.
He was the youngest of only four Batswana polers and guides who have travelled the entire Okavango River basin from the source of the Cuito River in Angola, to the mouth of the Boteti River at Lake Xau in the Makgadikgadi Pans, using dugout canoes called mokoros.
A son of the great rivermen, he acquired considerable knowledge of the Okavango Delta as a part of the Okavango Wilderness Project . He was featured in the National Geographic documentary, Into the Okavango, which documented the 2015 “Source to Sand” megatransect of the Okavango River basin.
Throughout these expeditions, Snaps proved himself an admirably hard-worker. Even when navigating thick papyrus and sharp corners, Snaps appeared to sail through effortlessly, never making his passengers work. He was very skillful and agile with his nkashi, the pole used to propel the mokoro, which proved crucial not just for navigation but also as a defense against the occasional hippo charge.
Snaps had the sort of soldier’s discipline that is essential for enduring the mental and physical challenge of lengthy river expeditions. He possessed a quiet strength, resilience, and focus, and he was always an eager contributor. He was usually given the sweeping back positions in the line of mokoros during river expeditions, or transporting photographers, and using his skills as a riverman to help them get the best shot.
The passing of Snaps is not just a great loss to his family but to the NGOWP team and community, the Okavango Delta, and the nation of Botswana. Snaps will be dearly missed by the whole team, and will live on in their hearts.Back
Angola Ministry of Environment
Angola Ministry of Tourism
Wild Bird Trust
Additional support provided by
The HALO Trust
Botswana Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation, and Tourism
Namibia Ministry of Environment and Tourism
The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservaton Area (KAZA TFCA)
The Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM)
The Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM)
HELP US PROTECT THE OKAVANGO WATERSHED
Our work to explore and protect the amazing biodiversity of the Okavango River Basin is vital to the health of the region. Your support not only helps preserve this important ecosystem, but it also funds the critical work of all of our explorers fighting to save threatened species, protect fragile habitats, and understand the world around us through rigorous research, independent science, and conservation. Your contribution to the National Geographic Society’s work is helping create a more sustainable future for our planet.