Breathtaking Botswana

Print edition : April 10, 2020

A bird’s-eye view of the magnificent Victoria Falls, which is on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Photo: Mike Johnsingh

A young male leopard, glowing in the golden light of the setting sun. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

One of the two sightings we had of a giraffe with its young. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Five cubs playing with a massive lion, maybe their father, at Savuti. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A Cape buffalo bull, a formidable but favoured prey of the lion. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

African wild dogs in the Moremi Game Reserve. The species is one of the four pack-hunting canids of the world. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A plains zebra and a group of elephants. Photo: Mike Johnsingh

Trees debarked and killed by elephants. Their impact on the habitat is enormous. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The acacia tree, on which the sociable weaver builds its nest, faces a great threat from elephants. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Tsessbe antelopes, which weigh between 125 kg and 140 kg, are suitable prey for the lion. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A roan antelope (male), a rare sighting. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A greater kudu eating flowers of the Capparis species. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The impala, the most graceful of Botswana’s 22 antelope species. Photo: S. Murali

The steenbok, one of the smallest antelopes in Africa, weighing in at 10 kg. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The wildebeest is found throughout the country and is a favoured prey of the lion. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The female waterbuck looks like a female sambar except that the latter has no white ring on its rump. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

An adult African elephant and a black-backed jackal at an artificial waterhole in Savuti. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The support staff (from left), Teenage, Baker (driver and guide), GG and Gottyma, the cook. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A 700-kilometre drive through protected wildlife areas of the landlocked country in southern Africa provides a window to the varied range of animals there, perhaps like nowhere else in Africa.

THE red hot ball of the setting sun was sliding behind an umbrella thorn tree. It was August 31, 2019. We, 12 wildlife enthusiasts from India, were standing in line at the immigration office in Kazangula, Zimbabwe, waiting to get our visa to enter Botswana as we had planned to spend 15 days visiting different wildlife areas in the country. Earlier in the day, we made a short visit to the Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe and, while a female bushbuck (Tragelaphua scriptus) resting amidst the bushes watched us, paid homage to the statue of the explorer and missionary Dr David Livingston. Later, while waiting for some of our colleagues to return from the helicopter ride they had taken to see the falls and the surrounding landscape from the air, we observed three warthogs (Phacochoreus africanus) feeding on tender grass and rooting for tubers on bended knees near the helipad. It is Africa’s only pig species and is active during the day. After we got the visa, we were allowed to enter Botswana only after we had stepped on a disinfectant mat, which is a precaution the government of Botswana takes to control the spread of foot-and-mouth disease to cattle. After mining and wildlife tourism, beef export contributes significantly to the country’s economy.

Our night halt was in Kwalape Safari Lodge in Kasane. The lodge is close to the Chobe National Park and is surrounded by an electric fence to keep animals away. In the morning, we observed that the most common visitor to the camp was a southern yellow-billed hornbill (Tokus leucomelas), which was totally habituated to visitors. Our plan was to visit to the Chobe National Park (11,700 sq. km), the Moremi Game Reserve (5,000 sq. km) and the Kalahari Game Reserve (52,800 sq. km).

Botswana is a landlocked country in southern Africa covering an area of 5,82,000 sq. km. It has an estimated population of 1.5 million people and a cattle population of 1.7 million, and its protected areas cover about 18 per cent of its land. These protected areas are part of the 5,20,000 sq. km Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which includes protected areas of neighbouring Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Botswana government has adopted a low-volume, high-paying tourism policy, which restricts the number of beds and campsites in national parks and game reserves. Tourist groups can stay only in the camping sites, and the management is strict about entry and exit timings.

Around 10 a.m. on September 1, we entered the Chobe National Park via the Sedudu gate, its main entrance, which is just 3 km from Kasane town. The animal that immediately caught our attention was an adult South African giraffe (Cape giraffe, or Giraffa camelopardalis), which was towering over the shrub vegetation around it. The neatly pruned woolly caper bushes (Capparis tomentosa) nearby point to the fact that giraffes have a liking for the species. Adult giraffes seldom browse below the two-metre mark, and their mouths, lips and tongues are highly specialised to feed on a variety of browse, be it spiny or thornless. They are fond of feeding on the young fruits of the sausage tree (Kigelia africana), which may be at a height of 6 m. Bats are attracted to this species, which has attractive green foliage and blood-red flowers that bloom at night on long rope-like stalks, for its nectar. It has been introduced in many places in India.

In 2016, the giraffe population in Africa was estimated at 31,500, of which Botswana had about 13,000. After local extinctions in many places, the South African giraffe has been reintroduced in many places and is surviving. Yet, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has moved the species from a status of “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable” in its Red List of Threatened Species report.

A study in Tanzania found that when there is a decline of primary prey—black wildebeest (Connochaets gnou) and plains zebra (Equus quagga)—for lions (Panthera leo), giraffe calves become exceedingly vulnerable to lion predation. In Chobe and the Moremi Game Reserve, we saw 25 giraffes but only two calves with their mothers.

Our drive to the Chobe riverfront was along a road that runs parallel to the river. It was slow going as the road was sandy and several elephants (Loxodonta africana), including some magnificent bulls, crossed the road to go to the river. They paid little attention to our vehicles. The Chobe National Park is reported to have about 50,000 elephants, and the Great Elephant Census, which was completed on August 31, 2016, reported that Botswana had about 1,30,000 elephants. Satellite data show the distribution of elephants in and around Botswana: in 2005-10, a good number of elephants were found outside Botswana in Angola, Zambia and Namibia, and in 2011-14, most of them had taken refuge in Botswana where they are fairly well protected.

But in a country dominated by arid landscapes that are frequently battered by drought, there is not enough room for all the elephants, and their impact on the habitat is enormous. Everywhere we went, we saw the skeletons of dead trees debarked and killed by elephants. Human-elephant conflict—crop raiding and the killing of people—is a serious problem that is on the rise. Poor people living in elephant landscapes rightly demand that elephant numbers be controlled. This has forced the government to allow the sport hunting of bulls. It has planned for the hunting of about 200 bulls in the first year, which will fetch the government about Rs.60 crore. Besides the trophy fee, hunters will also pay a significant amount of money as guide fees and for their stay in resorts, which could be for as long as three weeks. Selling the meat for human consumption and as pet food and the sale of skins will also bring in a reasonable amount of money. The killing of the bulls will not reduce the elephant population as the bull population is in the thousands, but the money can be used for the welfare of the people living there. Botswana takes poaching seriously; its soldiers patrol the territory, but they have to cover long distances, and poachers are greatly incentivised as the money involved in wildlife trafficking is enormous.

Botswana lions are known to kill calves and young elephants, yet we saw 28 calves and a total of 160 elephants. Interestingly, while elephants often walked past the tented camps or fed or drank water near them, they did not raid them, which is a common occurrence in India. It is difficult to explain, but one likely reason may be the cleanliness of the camps: over the years elephants may have learnt that there is very little for them to eat in the camps. We had seven sightings of lions in Savuti, which is in the heart of the Chobe National Park, and saw 20 lions, including cubs. One remarkable sighting was of a female with two small cubs and a kill of kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) lying nearby. The sun was quite warm, and the lion was resting in the scanty shade. Baker, our driver and guide, told us that the lioness had to travel 5 km to get water, which lactating lionesses need in plenty. It appears that even Savuti lions are able to go without water for a certain period of time, but the climax of this capability is achieved by the Kalahari lions.

One evening, when the forest was bathed in the golden light of the setting sun, we saw five cubs playing with a massive lion, maybe the father. When one cub approached another lion lying some 15 m away and started playing with it, the “father” lion aggressively rushed towards the other male, which made it run away. One morning, in a marshy area, we saw a large male feeding on the carcass of a Cape buffalo (Syncerus cafer). Two lionesses and three cubs were waiting patiently to feed on the kill, which the lion left only after eating his fill. The cubs went next, followed by the lionesses.

One major difference in the social organisation of most African and Gir (in Gujarat) lions is that male coalitions of the latter join the prides only when there is a large kill or the females are in oestrus. African male lions are part of prides. This difference is due to the average weight of the prey lions kill. In Gir, the most commonly killed prey is cheetal, whose average weight is around 40 kg and, therefore, will not provide enough meat for a female group consistently accompanied by males. In Africa, the average weight of the prey is around 150 kg.

It is often said that the difference between an African and a Gir lion is the presence of a belly fold in the Gir lion. Other than the British zoologist Reginald Innes Pocock (1863-1947), no one had talked about the possibility of African lions having the belly fold. We were pleasantly surprised to see a fine male lion in Savuti with a clear belly fold.

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is one of the four pack-hunting canids of the world, the other three being the Asiatic wild dog, or dhole (Cuon alpinus); the wolf (Canis lupus); and the South American bush dog (Speothos venaticus). According to the IUCN, the status of the African wild dog is endangered as it has disappeared from 25 of the 39 countries where it occurred in the past, and its present population is confined to eastern and southern Africa. It is said that the population estimation of 3,000 to 5,500 dogs is unreliable. The largest subpopulations might well be below 250 adult animals. The African wild dog population, like that of the dhole, fluctuates because of diseases such as rabies, mange and canine distemper, which are largely contracted from free-ranging dogs.

We were lucky to see the dogs both in Savuti and Moremi, and in both the places one or two individuals of the pack had been radio-equipped so that their ranging patterns could be studied. In Savuti, the pack was resting in the shade; in Moremi, it was on the hunt and was not easy to follow as cantering dogs can reach speeds of close to 10 km/hr. This is one of the species in Africa on which extensive research has been carried out. The ecological role of the wild dog is to weed out unfit animals from prey populations. Since the dogs occur in a group, they boldly trot through the savannah where there are lions and leopards (Panthera pardus), the way dholes saunter through the forests where there are tigers (Panthera tigris) and leopards. We had four sightings of leopards: one in Savuti and the rest in the Moremi Game Reserve. One young leopard was with a kill of a small animal under a large bush, and the other two, seen in different places, were comfortably stretched out on branches up in trees, basking in the soft light of the evening sun. Leopards are beautiful animals, and they look even more gorgeous in the golden light of the evening sun. The presence of climbable trees is important for their survival in a habitat where there are a good number of lions. Wild dogs also harass them, forcing them to go up trees.

During the drive, we saw nine species of antelopes (Botswana has 22 species). The most graceful among them is the impala (Aepeceros melampus), which is commonly seen in Chobe and in the drier and more forested tracts of the Okavango Delta. It weighs around 40 kg. Although it can survive without drinking water, the impala prefers to live near water and is largely absent from the Kalahari, where its place has been taken by the springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis). Their small size makes them ideal prey for the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). The tsessbe antelope (Damaliscus lunatus), which weighs between 125 kg and 140 kg, is suitable prey for the lion. We saw more of this antelope in the initial part of our drive from Savuti to Khwai, in the acacia woodlands. Another beautiful antelope we saw, more along the Khwai river than elsewhere, was the red lechwe (Kobus leche), which weighs between 80 kg and 100 kg. It needs dry land on which to rest but is otherwise adapted to life in the seasonal floodplains that border lakes and rivers.

But for the white necklace on the upper part of the neck and white ring on the rump, the sudden sighting of a female common waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymus) in its grassland habitat, with its large ears, may make wildlife enthusiasts from India think they had seen a female sambar deer. Waterbucks need to drink regularly, so they usually do not stray far from water and graze on short, nutritious grasses. We saw more of this antelope, which can attain a maximum weight of 270 kg, along the Khwai river and near the Okavango Delta. We saw the steenbok (Raphicerus cempestris), one of the smaller antelopes of Africa, which weighs around 10 kg, in several places that are dry.

In Botswana in the middle of the 20th century, the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) was the most numerous large herbivore, forming herds estimated at a quarter of a million individuals. Although it is still found throughout Botswana, its numbers have fallen drastically. We saw eight of these antelopes while travelling from Savuti to the Khwai camp. Since adults weigh more than 200 kg, it is a favoured prey of lions. We saw many kudus in Savuti and, closer to the Moremi Game Reserve, three of the very rare roan antelopes (Hippotragus equinus). The male sable antelope (H. niger) with its jet black body, white face, underbelly and rump, and long curved horns is a strong contender for the title of Africa’s most beautiful antelope. While travelling from Chobe to Savuti in the gathering darkness, we had a fleeting glimpse of a male sable before it turned and ran away from the road on seeing our vehicle.

Along with the elephant, the lion and the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus), the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious) stands out as one of the most dangerous animals of Africa. It spends most of the day submerged in water but emerges at night to graze on the shore. Being strongly territorial, the dominant male of the group, usually around 10 in number, will defend its territory to the death. We saw a total of 50 of them in Chobe, Khwai and the Okavango Delta. We saw nearly 20 plains zebras. It weighs around 320 kg and is an ideal prey for the lion. It often mixes with the wildebeest, and together they often form large herds. We saw about 40 buffaloes, mostly in Moremi near the Okavango Delta as they are heavily dependent on water. Like the gaur (Bos gaurus) of Asia, large herds of buffaloes are fairly peaceful, but solitary old bulls can be very nervous and aggressive. The buffalo, which weighs around 700 kg, is one of the lion’s favourite prey animals.

We also saw some chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) and vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops), and although they are capable of stealing from the tents, we did not suffer any loss at the hands of these monkeys. Several times, we saw honey badgers (Mellivora capensis), also known as ratel, which weigh around 12 kg, coming close to our camps at night. It has been reported that it has lost its fear of people and started scavenging from safari camps.

We saw about 50 species of birds, prominent among them being the southern carmine bee-eater (Merops nubicoides), the go-away bird (Corytherixoides concolor), the helmeted guinea fowl (Numida meleagris) and the marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus), which is closely related to Asia’s critically endangered greater adjutant (L. dubius) and the southern ground hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri). Among the above five species, the ground hornbills are in the IUCN’s category of “Vulnerable to Extinction”.

We had all the above wildlife sightings during our 700-km drive from the Victoria Falls to Maun in Botswana, which also includes the drives within wildlife areas. Surveys indicate that Botswana, of all African countries, provides tourists with an overall top-quality safari experience, and as a result, in 2016, 2.6 to 2.7 million tourists visited the country. We could sense discipline in the country in its efforts to manage wildlife.

We saw an abundance of the inedible and strong-smelling wild sage (Pechnel-Loeschea leubnitziae) in the Okavango Delta and Savuti. It can reduce the habitat quality for ungulates the same way the Lantana camara does in India. We hope that the dedicated people of and the Government of Botswana will be able to save their precious wildlife and its habitat for posterity.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, WWF-India and the Corbett Foundation. S. Murali is a retired professor of Ayya Nadar Janaki Ammal College, Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu.

The authors thank Madhavi Sethupathi for reading through the article and Mervin Johnsingh for editing the pictures.