The Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta, in northern Botswana is a place of supreme natural beauty and high biodiversity, made up of a multitude of habitats, in which a wide variety of flora and fauna live. It is one of Botswana’s most important natural assets and in order to help conserve it, the government of Botswana became a contracting party to the international Ramsar Convention in 1997 and the Okavango Delta was designated the worlds largest Ramsar site ( This unique ecosystem covers approximately 6,864,000 hectares and provides ideal habitats for numerous wildlife species and is also home to over 88,000 people, 50% of whom live in villages with less than 500 inhabitants in and around the delta.

Map of the Okavango Delta, Botswana, with project study zone highlighted in blue

People of the Delta

Livelihoods of people living in and around the Delta are closely interwoven with the diversity of natural resources, living off the goods and services the delta provides. The economy is, therefore, quite diverse and includes floodplain and dryland agriculture, livestock farming, wage labour and craft and tourism related enterprises. Five main ethnic groups exist in the Ramsar site, each with its own ethnic identity and language. They are Hambukushu, Dxeriku, Wayeyi (Bayei), Bugakwe and Xanekwe (River Bushmen). Large parts of the population still depend directly or indirectly on the utilisation of natural resources of the Delta for subsistence. Arable agriculture is practised mainly at a subsistence level and is becoming increasingly important as the population and agricultural development increases. Depending on annual rainfall, the planting of crops occurs between November and February and harvesting occurs between March and July.

Elephant population in Botswana

Northern Botswana contains the largest contiguous savannah population of elephants in Africa, where numbers have increased from an estimated >80,000 in 1995 to a current population of approximately 150,000. Indeed, numbers are reported to be increasing at an estimated growth rate of between 5-6% per annum. The elephants of northern Botswana have free range over ~80,000km2 of land 18% of which is in protected areas. In the dry season, the population concentrates near the main permanent water sources, namely the Chobe and Lynanti/Kwando River systems, and the Okavango Delta, yet during the wet season the range expands as elephants move away from the river systems to utilise the food sources near rain filled pans.

Human-Elephant Conflict arising in the Delta

With a growing elephant population in the Okavango Delta, now estimated to be ~31,000, and with the consequent range expansion into new, historically sparsely populated, areas, elephants are frequently entering areas around human settlements and escalating reports of Human –Elephant Conflict and negative attitudes towards elephants, as a consequence, are on the increase. Elephants are unfortunately now perceived to be a problem animal by many people. Many local communities are complaining of crop loss, property damage, fear of walking to work/school, and even human deaths. The Government of Botswana is under immense pressure from many of its citizens to do something about this expanding “problem”, and as a result management measures such as wide scale culling are being discussed.

An alternative to culling

Fortunately, the Botswana Government currently favours an alternative proposed management strategy to culling, which is to create a transfrontier conservation area with neighbouring southern African countries. Over the last five years, conservation organizations in southern Africa have been promoting the establishment of the large (approximately 300 000 km2) proposed Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KZTfCA) to conserve wildlife resources shared by Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola. This program aims at creating safe wildlife corridors for elephant and other wildlife to move freely across five international borders, and has the potential to become one of the most visually rewarding ecotourism destinations in the world. As with all conservation efforts a major consideration in the planning of this conservation area is the human population living close to the potential wildlife areas and corridors. The Okavango Delta forms a major component of the KZTfCA and therefore it is essential these communities can live in relative harmony with wildlife to ensure the success of this preferred management strategy.

Okavango Elephants & People Research Project
Anna Songhurst, Address: P. O. Box 131, Seronga, Botswana Tel: +267 71234281 / +267 74357589