Lessons in wildlife conservation from a lion tracker

2015 | Story and photos by Haley Pope

In January 2015, I had the amazing fortune of traveling to the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. The purpose of the trip was primarily for vacation, but also to take advantage of the opportunity to get some once-in-a-lifetime wildlife photographs and learn about regional conservation efforts. As the ultimate wilderness, the Okavango Delta is every nature lover and wildlife photographer's dream. It’s in an extremely remote area of the country that is only accessible by plane for much of the year due to its marshy landscape and swamps that are inundated by the annual flooding of the Okavango River.

 

As I ventured into this wilderness during the beginning of the wet season, I had to take a plane to reach the area of the Delta where I was staying. Breathtaking and inspirational don't begin to describe what I saw as soon as the plane took off from the town of Maun and flew over the delta. River channels, rolling hills, forest patches, and shallow ponds were all visible from the sky. But so were elephants, buffalo, and antelope, sprinkled across the landscape like tiny figurines. When the plane touched down at Pom Pom Camp after a 30-minute flight, I could hardly contain my excitement. My guide for the week met me at the landing strip in an open game drive vehicle. His name was L.T., short for “Lion Tracker”, a nickname for his ability to successfully track lions through the bush.

An aerial flight over the Okavango Delta in Botswana allows for unique views and perspectives of one of the most enchanting places on earth. Landscape level patterns and trails streak the ground and animals that would be larger than a human shrink down to toy size. A southern lechwe (Kobus leche) can be spotted below crossing the water channels of the Delta.

L.T., who is holding the lower jaw of a hippo, was my guide into the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

What could be a stranger looking bird than the marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer)? These scavengers are often seen standing atop tall trees in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, before taking to the sky and flying higher than a small plane.

A beautiful turquoise woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis) perches on a dead tree limb keeping an eye out for an easy meal in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Twice a day we explored the Delta either by Land Rover or by mokoro, a traditional canoe. L.T.'s creative imagination and storytelling, while wildly entertaining, often left me wondering whether his incredulous accounts were true... They were often corroborated by other park rangers back at camp, albeit after roaring laughter and comments to him in their native tongue, Tswana. While his stories about lion attacks and close calls with hippos kept everyone intrigued and engaged, what I found most interesting was L.T.’s commentary regarding conservation efforts in the Okavango.

 

At dinner that night, I visited with L.T. over some traditional Botswanan dishes. The scene was set: sounds of insects chirping, frogs croaking, hippos splashing, and a distant lion's roar drifted through the air as the sun set casting a warm, orange glow over the camp. L.T. explained that the Okavango Delta is made up of multiple land concessions that belong to the local Botswanan people, many of whom still live within the Delta. The concessions are then “rented” by the government and private safari operators for ecotourism for specific amounts of time under the strict regulation of the community land boards.

The local communities control how and when the land is loaned and to whom. If the local communities are not satisfied with the management of the reserve they can refuse to renew contracts with particular operators in the future. If that happened, tourist lodges in the area would be closed and trips into that region of the Delta would halt. Since ecotourism is something that not only benefits the Botswanan government and private safari operators, but also the local communities, this is something everyone wants to avoid.

I pondered over this arrangement. Prior to my trip, I had lived in South Africa where a strong sense of hierarchy exists and where many managerial positions in national parks are held by either foreigners or white, affluent South Africans. I was beginning to see that just north of the border in Botswana things are done differently. It was clear that the inclusion of local Botswanan communities played a massive role in land conservation and the prevention of wildlife crime in the delta.

We came across a young female leopard (Panthera pardus) basking in the sunshine just before evening while driving through the Okavango Delta, in Botswana.

In a flash, a herd of still and alert impala (Aepyceros melampus) (below) bound through the tall grass in the Okavango Delta (above). They vanished from sight in a few leaps like agile ballerinas of the bush. It's possible something was lurking in the grass and their keen hearing or sense of smell detected it. Or, maybe they were playing!

In the Okavango Delta, the majority, if not all, of the staff employed at game lodges are local Botswanan people, many of whom were born in the Delta like L.T. Having the authority to manage and protect the land on which they were born is empowering. They are able to support their families with the pay and benefits they receive from loaning the land for ecotourism purposes, all while educating themselves and tourists about the country's incredible wildlife.

Because of this, the locals I met had great pride in their country, strong personal ties to the land and wildlife, and saw the inherent value of conservation. This same mentality extended to Botswanan folks in other regions of the country. Once I learned this, it was not too surprising that Botswana has one of the lowest rates of wildlife crime in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As my time in the Okavango Delta came to close, much too soon, I reflected on my experience. I had never been to a place that felt so far removed from civilization and in such a pristine state. I had had some of the best wildlife encounters imaginable and luckily, took some amazing photographs to document my trip.

But most importantly, I learned from L.T. and the rest of the staff what successful and effective conservation management looks like in a region of the world where many countries are failing to conserve and protect their resources. It became apparent that local community involvement is vital to sound and effective conservation practices, especially in the interest of wildlife crime.

While paddling a mokoro boat through the Okavango Delta channels in Botswana, we saw many animals, but a favorite sighting was of a tiny red-and-white reed frog..

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