MAUN, Botswana – When the Okavango poured out of its riverbed in early May, floodwaters destroyed houses, roads and fields in the delta. But environmental experts say the inundation also had a positive effect: it gave a boost to the local waterbird population and brought back species in danger of extinction, such as the Gull-billed Tern, which was seen in the delta less than ten times in recent years.
Okavango floodwaters submerged plains with nutrient-rich water around several lakes in the Ngamiland and Chobe districts in the north of the country, turning them into optimal breeding grounds for birds. Wildlife experts predict this will draw thousands of tourists to the area.
Birdwatchers have reported spotting more than 50 different bird species along the banks of the Chobe River, an arm of the Okavango, and more than 12,600 waterbirds, many of which had not been seen in the area since the late 1950s and early 1960s. Over the past few decades, the delta has progressively gotten drier, and wildlife dwindled as a result.
On the floodplain around the Ngami River, the bird population is estimated to be five times higher than in the last few years, according to Birdlife Botswana, the local chapter of an international organisation that works to conserve birds and their habitats in the context of sustainable use of natural resources.
Birdlife Botswana committee member and birding expert Pete Hancock confirms that since the beginning of the flood, there has been an influx of bird species into the region, which has been a great opportunity for the country to promote birding tourism. “Areas like Lake Ngami are becoming one of the birding hotspots of southern Africa,” he reckons.
OKACOM, the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission, has collected and analysed data from throughout this river system, and projected the impacts of several different development paths. The Commission’s Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis has given the river’s three riparian states a powerful tool to guide development and ensure protection of biodiversity in places like Ngami.
Keen to make the most of the abundant birdlife, several safari operators have started running bird watching tours to the floodplains. This has the upside of increasing tourism in the area, but there are also some clear setbacks. Since Lake Ngami is a designated bird and wildlife hunting area, the rise in tourists might actually pose a threat to the birds.
Hancock fears safari operators will promote the hunting of birds, including rare species, such as the wattle crane, one of the most endangered bird species in the world.
“[Lake Ngami] is a communal area, [meaning that] the whole area is a designated hunting area, so it just became a free-for-all,” says Hancock, stressing the need for stricter hunting regulations. “We need to recognise these places as formal bird areas, [otherwise] recreational hunters will become a big threat to the birds.”
He recommends involving local communities in the birds’ conservation by letting them manage the access to and use of the area. That way, communities can help to control safari activity on the floodplains and at the same time gain economic benefit from the increase in tourism by charging a fee to enter the area.
Currently, mostly tour operators and lodge owners get the biggest share from the increase in tourism, while locals are left behind.
“There are more tourists coming and more tours on the mokoro [wooden canoe], that’s good for us. But only a few operators make money from this. The communities still don’t get more money,” confirms Monnye Ntema, the 77-year-old owner of a piece of land overlooking the river near Maun’s Old Bridge.
Ntema himself has long leased some of his land as the site for a successful lodge, in exchange for a percentage of the profits.