Friday, May 27, 2011

Into The Wild Future of the KAZA Park

This picture embodies the essence of the Okavango for me: Forging a future for the area that sees communities of people and nature working together for a common good.

Our Camp just after sunset under the Jackleberry Tree deep in the Okavango Delta.

We made it into the Wild once again.

The northern heart of the Okavango Delta is a wilderness of papyrus and grass dotted with small islands. During high water, like there is now, the islands shrink and the animals are pressured into smaller areas, becoming more crowded. The larger islands are to the south of us, and most of the larger predators have followed their prey species there.

I was just awakened by the odd sawing sound of a leopard prowling around our camp under the Jackleberry tree.

We cleared the area under the tree yesterday of all the elephant dung that had accumulated here since Max camped here a year or so ago. As we were cleaning his loo, so to speak, a large old bull came walking through the water towards us, veering off as he realized his favorite poo-ing spot was taken up by a bunch of pesky two legged critters.

We followed him in the Makoro canoes, listening as his powerful legs surged loudly through the water near us. We beached the canoes once he was up on the island and carried on foot. Tracking a large bull elephant on foot on a small island is not difficult but does have its obvious dangers. Seeing wildlife from the safety of a big metal vehicle is all well and good but there is nothing like walking up to them on African soil, an appropriate surge of adrenaline in the veins, and a clear eye out for an escape route.

Its time to get up. Dawn has arrived and our biological clocks have long been reset to the natural rhythm of the night and day. I have been recording the dawn chorus of birdlife on my sound machine, and although I missed the leopard sounds, maybe I will catch them tomorrow morning if he is back.

We are in the Jakotsha Communal Trust lands on the far western edge of the Moremi Wilderness Reserve. Here there is the possibility of seeing pretty much every large African mammal, as well as a bewildering array of birdlife, snakes, insects and of course lots and lots of trees.

Max, our guide, said this was grass snake but it looks remarkably like a Green Mamba that I filmed in Mozambique last year (LINK HERE).

Our second day in the heart of this vast wilderness started with this journal entry, and we went for a nice long walk in the morning to scout out the island.

The island is about a mile long and half a mile wide, covered with trees and shrubs, and dominated by the magnificent Baobabs.

Baobabs are an amazing tree species. They store water in their trunks, swelling during the rains and then shrinking during the long dry season, looking old and wrinkled by the end of it. They resemble an upside down tree with the roots sticking upwards. Their bark is shiny, and in a further backwards way, they blossom during the dry season and often shed their leaves during the rains, unlike virtually any other green growing thing in the region. Towering above most other trees they are an unmistakable symbol of Africa. Fortunately for them, their wood is useless for building and fire making. Its more like a stringy fiber. This fiber was used for thousands of years by Africans to make surprisingly strong and soft fabrics. The trees were harvested while standing, then regrew their skin. Many old giants still bear the scars of this sustainable use, but there are other reasons for those scars too.

The author in an ancient Baobab Tree, scarred by elephants and hollowed by time, which served as a shelter from two large bull elephants.

Baobab trees are an important part of most southern African ecosystems and here it is possible to see the ancient role they played in the wild cycle of the African bush. They provide a soft fibrous food with high water content for elephants, especially during the long dry season. In areas of Africa where the elephant has long disappeared the scars they left on the many old baobabs can be seen centuries later. Their fruit is edible, and has a high level of vitamin C. The oil from their seeds is widely appreciated in the cosmetics industry today for its moisturizing properties, and many forest communities have started preserving their baobabs and selling the fruit to international buyers. The elephants and many other animals are clearly the big beneficiaries of this abundance in the Okavango, the hard shells of the fruits are scattered everywhere, cracked open and looted for their treasure.

Baobab Trees, like the elephants that feed on them, are pillars of the Okavango Delta's Ecosystem.

We took refuge inside an old Baobab while two large old bull elephants passed nearby, and this was not an isolated use. In Mozambique and Zimbabwe I have seen many big old Baobabs used as places of refuge from marauding armies and animals alike. People have built bars and cafes into the big ancient trunks, and there is a local belief in Malawi that the trees harbor the spirits of the ancestors who sheltered under their boughs in ages gone by.

Our days were full in the Delta. We traveled to nearby islands for walking safaris with Max, who showed us local salts, how to harvest waterlily blossoms, how to use the stems of the plant for a filtering drinking straw, and where to catch a safe swim... safe at least from everything except leeches.

Carl liked eating the succulent inner stalks of the papyrus that tickled our faces as we swept by the in the fiberglass Makoros, but the little sand fleas liked eating him more. He bore the bites for two weeks after our trips, hundreds of them on each leg that drove him nearly mad with the itching. Clearly he was tastier than Martin and I, who did not get bitten by anything other than the odd leech and sole mosquito.

The cycle of life: Carl eats the Papyrus that house the bugs that ate Carl.

The protection this place receives today is clearly not sufficient for it's long-term survival. There is virtually no government oversight. There are signs of poaching, overfishing and unsustainable timber harvesting. Max and the other community members we talked to all agree that the creation of the KAZA (Kavango Zambezi Trans-frontier Conservation Area) is an important step in the preserving the area. Max would like to see permit systems developed that are more enforced, community protection units formed that patrol the area, and a stronger central trust system with real power to protect their natural heritage.

Clearly the community trust system in Botswana has been working up to a point, where communities feel ownership over their resources, and want to preserve them. I was surprised and heartened to hear not only that Max and the other guides support these initiatives that are supposed to be part of the larger park plan, but that they had their own ideas that went even further.

Sitting under the big shady Jackleberry tree during one of our last days in the Delta, Max explained: "We are the only ones who can look after this place, and we need to make sure we benefit from the use of it, then the people will stop poaching the fish and animals." The wind blew lightly, bringing the essence of the Okavango with it. "Five years ago, we would have seen lots of fishermen here, that has been stopped by us, without Geoff Randall's Makoro Project, this very tree would have been cut already...We can make a difference here, and we will make more of one in the future with help and better organization, -we know we can do it, who else will?"

The long trip out of the Delta took us two days, and we made it back to my Landcruiser, the Hog, without any trouble. But that pesky old clutch barely got us to Windhoek, Namibia where Carl and I, together the help of the high-lift jack at Wild Dog Safaris lifted the truck and changed the clutch. Sparing you all the gruesome details, eleven hours later with our friendship still intact, we had the clutch replaced, the gearbox back in, and the truck rolling again. I said goodbye to Carl and Martin, two of the best partners ever, and picked up a new crew for two weeks into the wild and wet river valleys of Namibia.

Max, right, poles us through the Hippo Pools at sunset into the heart of the Okavango Delta.

The proposed KAZA park plan.
John Barbee, my father, who is a constant source of inspiration and motivation suggested I put in a map of the park so everyone could visualize what this protected area bigger than Italy will look like.

The Documentary that our team has been making on the KAZA park will be shown later in 2011 on LinkTV.

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