Published April 19, 2017
Only one more day left in the bush of the Okavango Delta and seven until I’m on a plane back to the states. It’s difficult to believe, the time has passed so quickly. I’ll go on my last transect tomorrow morning, a bird transect. All we have left to work on are our projects, which we’ll present at the Okavango Research Institute on the 24th, and studying for our Setswana exam.
One of the most interesting parts of living in Botswana has been learning about the hunting ban of 2014 and its effects on the people who live here, in the controlled and protected areas of Botswana. I admit I didn’t even know about the hunting ban when I came to Botswana. When I heard about it during one of our first conservation biology classes, it seemed like a completely correct response to aerial surveys done by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks that showed populations of most herbivores falling precipitously across northern Botswana. Now, having spent several weeks living in the Delta, inside the buffalo fence, the hunting ban seems more like a flawed stopgap than anything else.
Hunting still happens, but now it’s called poaching, and more often than not it’s done for subsistence rather than commercial reasons. Besides turning normal people who are just trying to feed their family, as they have for millennia in the Delta, into criminals, it has taken away an important income source for rural communities. Though I have zero empathy for the usual motive of trophy hunting—I believe people should only hunt to eat—it was a very significant source of income for communities in the Delta, and can be sustainable if properly managed. The money, much more than could be earned through photographic tourism in a similar amount of time, went to schools, scholarships, community centers, house loans, and clinics, to name a few. I agree that something needed to be done about the declining numbers, but there must be a more appropriate middle ground.
Throughout my time here I’ve found myself continuously making comparisons with my home state, Montana, and in particular the little corner of the state I grew up in, around Livingston, just north of Yellowstone National Park. The wide open spaces and big skies of both places. The people, who are friendly and welcoming. The astounding lack of people, in many cases, small towns and villages separated by vast wilderness. Some aspects of the wildlife: the cape buffalo and the American bison, the impala and the pronghorn, the lion and the grizzly.
One thing I’ve noticed while living here has been how I see, or define, the wilderness. In Montana, I recognize it mostly based on the absence of human activity and the systems that support it. I realize I’m in wilderness when I down see any power lines, roads, or fences. When I don’t see any empty plastic bottles, cigarette butts, or manicured lawns. Or when there aren’t any mountainsides stripped of their trees or their earth. Here, though, we’ve been camping in places where there is none of the infrastructure that supports human activity—the roads, fences, and power lines—and I realize it more often based on the presence of things, usually wildlife. The group of giraffes loitering around the wet pan, the mating herd of elephants running past the edge of camp, the pair of ostriches dancing in the distance, or the leopard walking through camp at night, as a group of us sit around the fire. We’ve learned the tracks and scat of more than fifteen mammals, the identification of more than sixty bird species, a dozen grasses, and around thirty different trees and shrubs. It’s instilled within me a desire to learn the same thing for the place I call home—to realize and enjoy wilderness for what it is rather than what it is not.
There’s so much I’ll miss about this country and this program. We’ve has so many great times and seen and done so much. We’ve met so many great people and made so many good friends. I’ve made promises to come back, both to myself and others, and am intent on keeping them.