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Okavango Wilderness Project: Over 4500km in a Mokoro, across three countries

Avatar of inke inke - 11. January 2018 - Environment

Götz Neef, the only Namibian in the group together with the only Angolan, manned one of the six mokoros during the expedition from the origin of the Cuito to the end of the Okavango Delta.

Dirk Heinrich

In 2015, the then 27 year old Namibian Götz Neef, a qualified botanist and entomologist, joined the research team of the Okavango Wilderness Project thanks to his professor. During their first expedition they travelled 2414 kilometres from the source of the Cuito in the Central Angolan Highlands, through Namibia, to the end of the waterway, south of the world-famous Okavango Delta in Botswana. 

“I should come along as an entomologist and regularly take water samples from the Cuito and later the Okavongo. During the first trip, the expedition leader Dr Steve Boyes asked if I do sports and how good my balance is. Right thereafter, I had to steer one of the fiberglass Mokoros,” said the excited Götz Neef in August 2015, along the banks of the Okavango on the Namibian side. At that stage, the group had already travelled more than a 1000 kilometres across Angola on the Cuito. 

The start of the expedition was rather gruelling, as the members had to pull the six metre fiberglass Mokoros over land, due to the tight turns in the narrow Cuito. A few days later Neef received another job. He was asked to lay out fyke nets every evening, evaluate the catch the next morning, and preserve it for scientific purposes. 

During the first year, Neef volunteered and did not earn an income. “For me, the Okavango Wilderness Project was and is a unique opportunity and experience. I also want young people, especially in Namibia, to see that science and research is needed,” Neef emphasised two years ago. Today, the Namibian is one of the few permanent experts on the project, which will officially expire at the end of 2018. The young Namibian is the Research and Collection Manager. The Okavango Wilderness Project is sponsored by the National Geographic Society. A movie about the expedition is likely to be released early in 2018. An article and photos of the expedition have been published in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine.

The first expedition of the Okavango Wilderness Project was followed by further ones, to explore the tributaries of the Cuito in Angola. Finally, in 2017, they explored the Cubango from its origins in Angola to the point where the Cuito flows into the Okavango on the border between Angola and Namibia. Fifty-five percent of the water that reaches the Okavango Delta comes from the Cubango.  

From where the Cuito meets the Okavango which flows along the Angolan-Namibian border into Botswana, it covers a distance of 147 kilometres on Namibian territory. During that time, Neef and his colleagues counted more animals than on the 1000 kilometre stretch they travelled in Angola. In 2017, Cubango/Okavango exploration covered 336 kilometres from the Katitwi border post to the confluence with the Cuito in the Namibian border region, as the river forms the border between Namibia and Angola. The group passed the Hakusembe River Lodge west of Rundu. “On the Namibian stretch we saw five crocodiles, 344 hippos and two elephants, in addition to numerous birds and insects,” said Neef. 

Having seen very few mammals in the Angola regions, the team left camera traps, which have offered amazing results. Not only have they captured footage of leopards, various duiker, bush pigs and antelope, but also wild dogs, a male lion and a cheetah. Again and again, new camera traps were set up and offered new insights into the diverse wildlife. A total of 90 camera traps are currently deployed in the Central Angolan Highlands.

“We set up twenty camera traps on a path that the community mostly use as a motorcycle trail, to see how much bush meat is being traded. When we came back after two months, the SD cards and batteries had been removed from thirteen camera traps,” Neef said. Over the past three years, fourteen new plant species have been discovered during the eight expeditions, ten new fish species, and six new amphibian and reptile species. Four species of birds that had never before been seen in Angola, were also among the discoveries. Twenty-five large mammal species have been spotted, forty-three small mammals, such as mice and bats, and sixty-six range extensions of different bird species. Many of the bird species had previously been spotted in Angola, but not on the Namibian side of the Okavango River. 

The Okavango Wilderness Project began in 2010, when the world-famous Okavango Delta experienced its largest recorded flood, following irregular rains in Angola and Namibia a few months earlier. “This was the beginning of the Okavango Wilderness Project, when we launched the Okavango Wetland Bird Count, a nine-year project. It soon became clear to us that it did not make sense to explore the Delta alone, but to know the entire river system from source to end, in order to preserve the Delta,” said Dr Steve Boyes, founder of the project and expedition leader. In Angola a lot has to be done, as there are few conservation efforts. Through the expedition, the authorities and the governor of the province became aware of the huge potential and “the helpfulness was enormous”. In Namibia, the Okavango is already partially protected and used sustainably. But there is still much to do, as the current conditions of the water supply in Windhoek indicate that water from the Okavango should be used. It is only in Namibia that the river is used as a source of water for agriculture. This is neither the case in Angola, nor in Botswana.  

“Transboundary conservation between Angola, Namibia and Botswana does not work, but it is important to maintain the sustainable use of the Okavango system. This project is just the beginning, because all our data is open source and available to the public. Ultimately, the Okavango from its source to where the water disappears into the Kalahari Desert, can become Africa’s largest nature conservation area, with unexpected tourism and scientific opportunities,” says Boyes. The people and governments of the three countries concerned need to recognise the opportunities, even if they are fundamentally different in said countries. “We have chosen specific areas that require special attention and focus,” said the project leader. 

“The project has attracted and excited various experts. Thanks to my work, I can learn a lot from many other researchers, familiarise myself with technical equipment and exchange knowledge,” said Neef. The now 29-year old was astonished when people began to recognise him on the streets of Swakopmund, where his parents live. “When I visited National Geographic in America, everyone greeted me too, having seen me in photos and video footage. That is a weird feeling,” said the young researcher. 

Neef advises every university graduate to take every opportunity to gain experience and to expand their knowledge. This means that sometimes work won’t mean a salary, but take it in strike and push forward. 

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