OKAVANGO WILDERNESS PROJECT
An Oasis in the DesertIn the heart of southern Africa, the Kalahari Desert gives way to one of the world’s largest wetlands as seasonal rains from Angola’s highlands flood northern Botswana’s Okavango Delta each year.
Nkashi: Race for the Okavango
Nkashi: Race for the Okavango shows the triumphs and challenges of three mokoro (dugout canoe) polers, celebrates cultural heritage, and illuminates the importance of protecting the Okavango Delta – one of the most unique wetlands in the world. This feature length documentary was made in Botswana, in Setswana, in close collaboration with a team of Batswana filmmakers.
WHY IT MATTERS
The Okavango Basin is the main source of water for a million people and is one of the most biodiverse places in Africa. It supports the world’s largest remaining elephant population as well as lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, hundreds of species of birds, and much more.
WHAT WE’RE DOING
NGOWP has been surveying and collecting scientific data on the river system and working with local communities; NGOs; and the governments of Angola, Namibia, and Botswana to secure permanent, sustainable protection for the greater Okavango Watershed.
WHO WE ARE
The National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) has been surveying and collecting scientific data on the river system and working with local communities; NGOs; and the governments of Angola, Namibia, and Botswana to secure permanent, sustainable protection for the greater Okavango Watershed.
Guardians of the River
AN OASIS OF BIODIVERSITY
The Okavango Delta is one of the largest freshwater wetlands in southern Africa and is home to over 1,000 species of plants, more than 480 species of birds, 130 species of mammals, and numerous species of reptiles and fish. In the Angolan highlands, where the source of the Okavango originates, NGOWP has recorded 53 species new to academic science, more than 81 species potentially new to science, and more than 143 species previously unknown in Angola.
The Delta is recognized as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International as it is home to 24 species of globally threatened birds. The expedition team has documented 480 bird species, including four new species records for Angola, and collected data for 66 range extensions. Their bird surveys continue to add important data to the regional bird list including a newly discovered breeding population of the vulnerable wattled crane.
Leopards, spotted hyenas, red lechwe, roan antelope, and sitatungas are widespread throughout the Okavango Delta. Some of the world’s most endangered animals like cheetahs and African wild dogs can be found here, as well as stable populations of iconic species such as elephants and lions.
The NGOWP’s camera traps confirmed the presence of the lion, cheetah, leopard, and critically endangered African wild dog in areas as far north as the Cuito and Kembo Rivers’ source lakes. This has led to the expansion of the known range for wild dogs and cheetahs.
Another of the team’s camera traps recorded the first confirmation of sable antelope around the source lake of the Cuanavale River, a location more than 300 kilometers north of their current range. This has sparked new scientific discussion on the relative distribution of this species.
The crown jewel of the Delta is the world’s largest remaining population of elephants, numbering around 130,000, whose movements shape and reshape the Delta’s channels.
The team confirmed the presence of elephants in the upper reaches of the water tower, between the Cuito and Cuando Rivers. This observation indicates that remnants of the great, historic Angolan population still survive and can once again flourish if the area is protected. This could help reduce the ecological pressures that Botswana’s large elephant population is exerting on the environment, which exceeds its carrying capacity, due in part to the Angolan population taking refuge there from poaching and the country’s civil war. Securing a home in Angola for these elephants would allow them to safely migrate back into the Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower.
PEOPLE & COMMUNITIES
The Okavango River Basin is the main water source for one million people across Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. The Delta is also a major tourist attraction, and provides an important source of income and employment for people living in the communities along the river.
THE RIVER SYSTEM
The Okavango Delta is the main source of water for a million people and is one of the most biodiverse places in Africa. It supports the world’s largest remaining elephant population as well as lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, hundreds of species of birds, and much more.
FROM THE WATER TOWER TO THE DELTA
An average of 2.5 trillion gallons of water flow through the Okavango watershed every year, providing water to a million people and creating a haven for wildlife.
Over 95 percent of the water that flows to the Delta originates from rainfall in the Angolan highlands. There it is captured by source lakes and rivers like the Cuito, Cuanavale, Cuiva, Cuando, and Lungue-Bungo, that are surrounded by vast miombo woodlands creating an ecosystem characterized by seepages, streams, oxbow lakes, and ridgelines that make up the Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower. The water tower is critically important for sustaining water flow to the rest of the Okavango watershed.
Over 95 percent of the water that flows to the Delta originates from the rainfall in the Angolan highlands.
The seasonal rains travel to the Okavango Delta by two main rivers: the steep Cubango River in the west and the more gradual Cuito River in the east, where water pools into lakes; percolates through grassy floodplains, peat deposits, and underlying sand; and seeps into tributaries.
These rivers converge at the southern border of Angola to form the Okavango River. The Okavango River then flows across Namibia and into Botswana, where it radiates out over the vast Okavango Delta, driving the dramatic seasonal expansion of life in the Delta.
After building up for weeks in the Delta, flood waters eventually burst forth from its southern reaches, forming the Boteti River, which flows out to the Makgadikgadi Pan.
The team’s comprehensive surveys have resulted in the discovery of 14 plant species potentially new to science and 27 species newly recorded for Angola, filling one of the largest gaps in botanical knowledge on the African continent.
The team also identified previously undocumented, large-scale stratified peat deposits surrounding the source lakes and rivers. These extensive peatlands act like a giant sponge absorbing both carbon dioxide and water, which is essential for sustaining the year-round flow of freshwater into the Okavango, Cuando, Zambezi, and Kwanza Rivers and ensuring that fish and wildlife can endure prolonged periods of drought.
Communities along the water tower have maintained a lifestyle intertwined with the rivers and the ecosystem they support. But as land mines from the decades-long civil war are decommissioned and more roads open up, the outside world is encroaching into these isolated communities and the surrounding wilderness. As a result, the illegal commercial bushmeat trade has picked up, as have unregulated development, charcoal production, and logging.
Widespread, human-set fires from hunting, slash-and-burn agriculture, and charcoal production represent one of the greatest threats to the source waters.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES KYDD
PROTECTING THE OKAVANGO RIVER BASIN
In partnership with Google, National Geographic’s Voyager story uses newly visualized Human Impact data and on-the-ground storytelling from our Okavango Wilderness Project expeditions to show real-world solutions for better protecting natural resources and wildlife.
WHO WE ARE & OUR WORK
The NGOWP is committed to securing permanent, sustainable protection for the greater Okavango River Basin, from the source waters in the highlands of Angola, to the Delta in Botswana. Since 2015, NGOWP has been working with local communities; NGOs; and the governments of Angola, Namibia, and Botswana to realize this vision.
SUPPORTING LOCAL ACTION
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 working with regional governments, 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.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KOSTADIN LUCHANSKY
PHOTOGRAPH BY KOSTADIN LUCHANSKY
Since 2015, the NGOWP team has completed 12 ambitious multi year expeditions covering more than 13,000 kilometers on foot, in dug-out mekoro (canoes), on fat-tire bikes, 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.
MOST RECENT EXPEDITION
2022 ANNUAL OKAVANGO DELTA CROSSING
The team is currently undertaking its 12th annual crossing of the Okavango Delta. On this year’s crossing, they are traveling along two different routes simultaneously: one in the east from Seronga to Daonara, and one in the west from Mopiri to Maun.
MAP BY NGS STAFF
- 8 ——— May-June: Kembo River Megatransect
- 9———May-August: Cuando River Megatransect
- 4——— September: Annual Delta Crossing
- 10———July-August: Annual Delta Crossing
- 11———Sept-Oct: Mussuma track
MEET THE TEAM
Senior Program Manager
WILD BIRD TRUST
Project Leader, National Geographic Explorer
Country Director – Angola
Country Director – Botswana, National Geographic Explorer
Storytelling Manager, National Geographic Explorer
Office Manager – Botswana
Maun Operations Manager
Senior Strategic Advisor
Research and Collections Manager
Lead, Paleolandscape Studies
Herpetologist, Reptiles and Amphibians
Co-lead Botanist, Botanical Research Director
Geomorphologist and System Ecologist
Co-lead Mammologist, Small Mammals
Co-lead Mammologist, Small Mammals
Mammalogist and Geomorphology
Head Guide, Ambassador for NGOWP, National Geographic Explorer
Expedition Leader for NGOWP, National Geographic Explorer
Researcher at Department of Wildlife and National Parks – Botswana, National Geographic Explorer
DE BEERS AND NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HAVE PARTNERED TO ADDRESS ONE OF THE MOST CRITICAL CONSERVATION CHALLENGES IN AFRICA: PROTECTING THE NEAR-PRISTINE SOURCE WATERS OF THE OKAVANGO DELTA. LEARN MORE AT WWW.NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/OKAVANGO-ETERNAL
Wild Bird Trust
Angola Ministry of Environment
Angola Ministry of Tourism
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.
Learn how you can help change the world for the better. Get updates from our Explorers who are working to protect and preserve the Okavango ecosystem for generations to come, and learn about all our work to explore and protect the planet.
Photo credits (from top of page): PHOTOGRAPH BY KOSTADIN LUCHANSKY;PHOTOGRAPH BY CORY RICHARDS;PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES KYDD