African experience

Print edition : December 05, 2008

Shekar Dattatri beside a termite mound in the Okavango delta.-

A wildlife film-makers journey through Botswanas Okavango delta, an unspoilt destination.

THE images of Botswana that come alive on his computer screen bring more than just beautiful memories to Shekar Dattatri. I found excellent examples of ecotourism there. While it may not be practical to replicate these in India, there are many things that we can learn about responsible wildlife tourism from this beautiful country in southern Africa, says the award-winning wildlife and conservation film-maker. Tourists who know nothing about conservation should leave the place wiser for the experience. Ecotourism should not only benefit wildlife but also local communities.

An aerial view of the Okavango delta. Its total expanse is 17,000 sq km and in satellite images it looks like a frying pan, complete with a handle.-

In May this year, Dattatri was part of a small expedition into the heart of Botswana, one of the most beautiful and unspoilt destinations in the world. The trip started at the Selinda game reserve, a private concession (land contracted out for tourism), and wound its way through the virtually untouched wilderness of the Okavango, the largest inland delta in the world.

As the Okavango river descends from the mountains of neighbouring Angola and enters north-west Botswana, it fans out to become a vast delta. Teeming with wildlife, the delta is a virtual showcase of African mega fauna hippopotamuses, elephants, lions, leopards, impalas, African cape buffaloes, hyenas and warthogs. The birdlife includes martial and Batteleur eagles, marabou storks, saddle-bill storks and numerous other species.

But for the vast expanse of water, the area occupied by the Okavango delta would have been a desert. Some years ago, a neighbouring country had plans to build a dam across the river. That would have left the delta starved of water. Fortunately, the plan was dropped and the Okavango remains a paradise of extraordinary beauty and richness.

Walking safaris are arranged in the Selinda game reserve.-

This protected wilderness is so vast that it can even be seen from space. In satellite images, it looks like a frying pan, complete with a handle, and its total expanse is a staggering 17,000 sq km. A comparison would be edifying: the Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka, about which Dattatri made a film in 1997, is only 627 sq km.

Hundreds of islets dot the Okavango delta. The abundant water and lush vegetation have resulted in a mind-boggling assemblage of wildlife, turning the delta into something of a utopia, says Dattatri.

TEEMING WITH WILDLIFE, the delta is a virtual showcase of African mega fauna a herd of elephants-

The astonishing fact is that most of these islets were apparently formed by the action of termites over a long period of time. When the water level in the delta is low, termites start building mounds on the exposed ground. Over the years, the mounds get larger and larger, sometimes reaching a height of almost four metres.

Every year, the Okavango river accumulates an enormous amount of fertile silt and deposits it in the delta during its annual flooding cycle. This silt settles around the termite mounds. Birds, which perch on these mounds, drop excreta loaded with various seeds. From these, vegetation springs to life. Grass grows around the mound and trees take root. This small, vegetated piece of ground, says Dattatri, then traps more silt during the succeeding floods, and gradually grows into a little islet. As many neighbouring islets keep growing this way, they conjoin and eventually become larger islands.

Giraffe-

The substrate beneath the Okavango delta is Kalahari sand which, in itself, is not very fertile. What lends fertility to the delta is the silt that the river brings from the Angolan highlands year after year. The islands created by the termites are, therefore, extremely lush and provide food and cover to a variety of animals that hop from island to island. The impala, the zebra and the buffalo come for the grass and predators follow them. Elephants too use the islands. Thus, the action of the humble termites has created opportunities for even the mightiest of animals in what would otherwise have been just a sheet of water.

Botswana has the best situation possible to preserve its wildlife. A country one-sixth the size of India and with fewer than two million people, it experiences very little of the pressure on land and other population-related problems that India has. Whats more, its President, Ian Seretse Khama, has a deep interest in wildlife and conservation. When you have a country like Botswana with such a wealth of wildlife and a President who is keenly interested in preserving it, you can imagine what the thrust will be, right from the top, towards conservation, says Dattatri. Khama was earlier the chief of the countrys army. His father was Botswanas first President.

Hippopotamus-

Botswana is a land-locked country, bordered by South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is a stable, relatively prosperous democracy, with much of its revenue coming from its diamond mines. Diamonds account for more than 70 per cent of the countrys export earnings. Cattle-rearing is the second most important avocation and tourism is the third largest revenue-earner.

The Botswana model is high-value, low-volume tourism, which brings in good revenue without putting too much pressure on fragile habitats. It is specialised wildlife tourism, with the Okavango delta and its myriad islands being at the heart of it.

Dattatri flew to Maun in Botswana via Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was joined by two of his naturalist-companions from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Maun is the gateway to the Okavango delta. It has grown rapidly in the past few years from a village to a vital wildlife hub.

A warthog in Selinda.-

Small charter flights operate from Maun to various wildlife camps around the delta, each of which has its own small dirt strip for landing and takeoff. Sometimes the pilots have to make several approaches to shoo away the lions or elephants sitting on the airstrip and create enough space on the runway to land or take off, exclaims Dattatri.

From Maun, the team took a charter flight to Selinda, a privately operated wildlife reserve. This is where Botswana scores with its brand of ecotourism, says Dattatri. Selinda offers a good example of the best practices in ecotourism.

THE RICH BIRDLIFE in Okavango includes martial eagles-

The Government of Botswana apportions areas of wilderness into different blocks and auctions them to private ecotourism operators. Each block covers an area of about 1,50,000 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare). Since there are no fences, animals can move freely without hindrance. Entrepreneurs can bid for such blocks, called concessions, for a tenure of up to 15 years, paying a royalty to the government. The operator then has to manage the range on his own and earn his revenue.

However, this does not mean that he can do whatever he wants in the game reserve. He cannot, for instance, build a couple of hundred concrete rooms to maximise his profits, says Dattatri. Only eco-friendly cottages, using locally available material, are allowed.

Marabou storks-

In Selinda, there are only 14 cottages in the entire concession of 150,000 acres; each cottage can accommodate just two people. Consequently, the cost for a day at Selinda is quite high about $750 a person, which includes the expenses for wildlife safaris, payment for guides, and food and accommodation.

There are no television sets or air-conditioners in the cottages. Silent generators supply electricity to the camp. No littering is allowed anywhere in the concession and plastic is taboo. The high cost keeps away day-trippers who would otherwise ruin the area by descending on it in hundreds. Its certainly not egalitarian, but then it helps preserve the wilderness in its pristine state, says Dattatri, adding that there are other parks in Botswana that are accessible to tourists who cannot afford the kind of rates charged by premium camps such as Selinda.

Ground hornbills-

Despite the high rates, margins are fairly slim for concession owners as they are almost fully responsible for the upkeep of the land. Not only do they have to provide their guests with services commensurate with the charges, but they have to keep the area free from poachers.

Dattatris wildlife guide at Selinda was Humphrey Gumpo, a young man with boundless enthusiasm. It is not easy to become a licensed guide in a game reserve in Botswana. There are several written, oral and practical examinations to pass before being certified as a guide. The guides are expected to be able to identify all the birds and animals in the area and be able to answer even complicated questions on logy of the region. The rigorous training programme also equips them to look after their guests in style and comfort while guaranteeing an unforgettable wilderness experience.

All the private camps have small fleets of top quality all-terrain vehicles such as Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers. These are not only specially outfitted for the comfort of the guests but are maintained in excellent condition to keep noise and pollution to the minimum.

On a safari with wildlife guides from the Selinda camp.-

Southern Botswana has lost a lot of its wilderness, but the northern part of the country is still extremely rich and pristine. Within minutes of flying out of Maun, Dattatri and his companions saw great swathes of scrubby grassland with clusters of trees here and there. Immediately on landing on an airstrip, they ran into warthogs, giraffes and other uniquely African animals. What enthralled Dattatri were the spectacular sunsets for which Africa is famous. In the African wilderness, when the sun sets and darkness descends, it is as if you have been transported back millions of years in time, he says.

The camps may sport an ethnic and rustic appearance from the outside, but within, everything is comfortable and practical. Thanks to the pleasant weather during most of the tourist season, a cool breeze fills the room the moment you open the curtains. At night you are lulled to sleep to the soothing sounds of the African night. The noisy hippos in the swamp nearby add to the ethereal charm of the place, says Dattatri.

At Selinda, walking safaris are arranged for those who are interested. These can be of different durations: from a half-a-days stroll to two or three days of rigorous walking, spending the nights out in the wilderness. Its very different from a jeep safari, which is virtually risk free. When you walk, you encounter wild Africa on its own terms and must be prepared for anything, says Dattatri.

A typical charter plane for ferrying tourists to wildlife camps.-

Guides are required to carry a loaded rifle when walking in the bush and are even authorised to shoot an animal in case of real danger. The government rules are very strict, and every bullet has to be accounted for, and every shot fired by a guide, even to scare away an animal, must be reported and justified in great detail in writing. The paper work involved ensures that no one becomes trigger-happy, adds Dattatri.

During their two-day stay at the Selinda game reserve, the team saw flocks of marabou storks, which are somewhat similar to the adjutant storks found in India. Like the adjutants, marabou storks too have naked necks since they feed a lot on carrion, digging deep into the blood-soaked carcasses as vultures do. Dattatri and friends also came across a large gathering of about 200 elephants. Smaller families of elephants were often seen wherever there was vegetation and water.

Saddle-bill storks.-

Dattatri explains why African elephants have such large ears. Since savannah elephants spend most of their time out in the open, their body can get overheated. The large ears act like radiators. Constant flapping of the ears, which have an extensive network of blood vessels in them, cools the blood circulating through them. Since many animals do not sweat, they have adaptive mechanisms and behavioural traits to stay cool despite high ambient temperatures in summer.

Two species of African hornbills are common at Selinda the large ground hornbill and the smaller yellow-billed hornbill. The ground hornbills can fly, but all their foraging is done on the ground. They feed on lizards, snakes and insects and sometimes the fledglings of ground-nesting birds also. The yellow-billed hornbill is omnivorous and can be seen constantly flitting from tree to tree in search of food.

After two nights at Selinda, the team flew to Xigera, in the middle of the Okavango delta, where a boat was waiting for it for the four-day expedition to Maun. The delta is a maze of thousands of creeks and channels flowing through vast expanses of papyrus reeds and it would be extremely easy to get lost. Thankfully, our guide, Luke, knew the waters like the back of his hand and never missed a turn during the entire journey, marvels Dattatri.

THE ECO-FRIENDLY COTTAGES may sport an ethnic and rustic appearance from the outside, but within, everything is comfortable and practical.-

The expedition team spent the nights camping under the stars, sleeping on small islands, sometimes with elephants or other animals nearby. The journey was an unforgettable experience for Dattatri. Barring Ladakh and one or two places in the north-east, there is virtually no true wilderness left in India, and it was enthralling to be in a landscape with no human habitations for miles in any direction. When we stopped the boat to take in the scenery the only sounds that could be heard were the sounds of nature.

The two aluminium boats they travelled in carried enough rations, water, and tents. The tents were actually mosquito nets on frames, so when you lay in your bed it was as though you were completely in the open with nothing between you and the bush. At night, as we drifted off to sleep, we could often hear lions roaring, leopards calling and baboons, frightened of predators, making alarm calls. The sky was so clear that it was as though you could reach out and touch the stars, reminisces Dattatri. It was primordial.

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