Drought and pandemic travel bans leave Okavango Delta canoe captains struggling to make a living



By Boniface Keakabetse for The Okavango Express

A prolonged dry spell that dried channels in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and then the Covid-19 pandemic have hit tourism workers with twin shocks that many say they will struggle to overcome, raising fears of an increase in wildlife crime.

Many people work as ‘polers’ guiding tourists on small canoes called mokoros through the thousands of streams and channels of the Delta to experience the beauty and wildlife up close.

But a combination of a period of less-than-average flooding and the lack of visitors owing to Covid-19 travel bans means many have been left destitute.

Keikantsemang Gorewang, 53, is one of the many women making a living from taking tourists out on canoe safaris, at a canoe station called Boro 2 in the lower part of the Delta. The mother of four shared that the past three years have been tough for Mokoro polers.

“I learnt how to pole the wooden canoe in my youth. The canoe has been my life for over 40 years. I make a living from polling tourists into the Delta to see wildlife,” she told the Okavango Express.

“In 2020 our channel dried up, forcing us to relocate to neighboring station. In 2021 when the channel received some water our celebrations were cut short. No tourists came due the travel restrictions caused by the global coronavirus pandemic. It has been doom for us.”

Lenkamile Batshoelwang, 42, has been working on the mokoros since 2005, and also had to move to a new station after the channels where he usually worked dried up.

“It is tough for us here,” he said. “We have been forced to leave our children behind. But there are no tourists coming yet and we don’t know how long we will be forced to wait.”

Batshollwang expressed concern that since 1998 the channel has been drying quickly.

“Water comes only for a short time and the river dries quickly. Tourism is our only source of income because we cannot grow crops due to elephants damaging the farms. Those who keep livestock face a big problem of predators preying on their livestock.”

Batshoelwang told The Okavango Express that he was suspicious that the drying spells could have contributed to the rise in rhino poaching in an area of ​​the southern Delta known as NG32.

“As soon as the Delta dried up around 2019, we started hearing about the cases of rhino poaching,” he said. “This continued during the Covid-19 lockdown. We are suspicious that flooded river channels previously made it hard for poachers to traverse the vast Delta to poach.

“When the channels dried up it made it easy for them to poach, something that could have been worsened by limited movement in the area due to the lockdown.”

Many of the polers are part of Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust (OKMCT,) a community-based tourism organization that covers six settlements in the region: Daunara, Ditshiping, Boro, Xuaxao, Xharaxao and Xhaxhaba.

OKMCT representative, Seikaneng Moepedi, told The Okavango Express: “The aim of the Trust is to achieve wildlife conservation by teaching that community members benefit financially from the product by polling and getting paid directly by tourists for guiding services in NG 32.

“Our experience since the formation of the Community Trusts has shown that when the communities benefit from the wildlife resources, they see a need to conserve it. Due to the impact of low floods and Coronavirus, the communities have not enjoyed the full benefits they did before the Covid era. We fear if the situation prevails people could be tempted to poach.”

Dr. Murray Hudson, research fellow at the Okavango Research Institute explained that the dry spells are part of Delta history.

Dr. Hudson explains: “Okavango inflows are highly variable. Historically, it is common to see several successive low inflows, resulting from successive years of low rainfall in the catchment.

The likelihood of large changes to rainfall is not so certain; many models indicates the possibility of a bit less rain; others indicate the possibility of slightly increased rain along the Okavango catchment. The uncertainty about the direction of change in the rainfall makes it very difficult to attribute differences that we see in one or two years directly to climate change yet.”

Dr. Hudson was however in agreement that current climate modeling points to higher temperatures caused by climate change in the Delta. He lamented that losses of water from the

Delta due to evacuation could lead to the reduction of flood size over the long term. He challenged tourism operators in the Okavango Delta to change and adapt.

“They must be ready to adapt to the prevailing circumstances. This could mean, for example, setting up walking trails in the same areas where Mokoro trails function in high water,” he advised.

Meanwhile, the Director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Dr. Kabelo, communities projects to utilise the Government’s National Environment Fund and Conservation Trust Fund which respectively community for climate and conservation adaptation.

This article is reproduced here as part of the African Conservation Journalism Program, funds in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe by USAID’s VukaNow: Activity. Implemented by the international conservation organization Space for Giants, it aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate. Read the original story here.

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