*Pictures for this and all other posts to be provided once I am home and have a reliable computer to plug my camera into.*
Following the trials and tribulations of July, a vacation was much needed. Thus, I found myself for a week enjoying the splendours of northern Botswana. The climate in Kasane, located at the junction of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, is much different from that in the far south. As we drove north, the weather warmed, and dusty plains began to be replaced by tall bush giving way to trees. The forests as we approached Nata were composed of slightly less acacia, and more teak, palm, and the ever-loved symbol of sub-Saharan Africa, the baobob tree. Despite the difference in floral composition, the forest looked much similar to that of the northern US in fall, many trees devoid of leaves, some still bearing them in colours yellow and orange, the floor littered with their annual refuse.
In Kasane, the lodge I stayed in for five nights was directly on the waterfront, with a walkway down to a small dock. From there, one can watch the sun set over the Chobe River with all the brilliant reds and golds that an African sunset can muster dancing upon the water and reeds. In town on the waterfront is a wildlife corridor, a strip along the bank where no one may build to preserve its beauty. The forest there is thick, luscious and green, the sort of immediately obvious fullness of life that I have not seen for months, due to the dry weather. Kingfishers hover above the river, occasionally diving for small fish darting about in the water that one can assume is littered with crocodiles. The atmosphere is that of pure and simple relaxation, and game viewing in the Chobe National Park is positively stunning. During the dry season, wildlife flock to the river in droves, and the clear open floodplains make for some of the most spectacular viewing in the world. On the first day there, I saw elephants, hippos, buffalo, giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, impala, sable antelope, topi, countless different birds, crocodiles, and elephants. The next day, with all of the aforementioned, added on roan antelope, puku, red lechwe, a lioness with two cubs, and more elephants. There are a lot of elephants.
Too many elephants, in fact, is the general feeling of the place. One can hardly drive down the road without stopping to let a herd pass. I would hardly be a good conservationist if I did not bring up the various issues present in such a beautiful reservoir of animal life. The region, which can happily and sustainably hold a few thousand pachyderms, is home to upwards of an estimated 140,000 of the beasts, and it shows on the landscape. As soon as one drives outside the town, the river front changes from lush green to bleak brown. Trees become scarce, and almost all of those remaining have the entirety of their bark worn away up twelve feet by rubbing elephant bodies. This eventually means death for the trees, as it opens their system to bacterial and fungal infections. The baobob that remain in the area, likely hundreds of years old, look sick and scarred near the base. On more recent victims of elephant attacks, the baobob are hourglass-shaped, their soft, pulpy, fibrous interiors exposed as if gnawed by giant beavers. The main ecological role of the elephant is to maintain plains by destroying forests and encroaching trees. However, the pure density of grazers and browsers in this area, mixed with the lack of rain for the past three or four months, has meant a severe lack of edible bush and grass on the banks, as well. There are two different browse lines in bushes and trees, each defined by how high up antelopes and giraffe can reach to eat all the leaves. All that is left are a few unreachable patches of vegetations and a lot of sand.
Alongside the drawing effect of a large water source, the elephants have been more or less been pushed to this river by human encroachment, especially from Zimbabwe where poaching has been rampant. However, the population appears to have stabilized, according to a recent census, and elephants are now moving out of the Chobe River area to other places that will sustain them, such as Angola and Zambia. A recent shift in water distribution has left the CKGR with a river that will support permanent elephant populations, as well. Even this movement of animals away from Chobe, however, cannot fix the overpopulation problem or mask the blatant destruction that has occurred there in the past few years.
Elephants are actually quite difficult to live with from an agricultural point of view. They raze crops, destroy fences, and create dangerous, often deadly, situations for animals and farmers. One can live alongside them, but it is very difficult for humans and elephants to comfortably occupy the same space. Many theories have risen to approach this problem. The most obvious solution is to decrease the number of elephants. Translocations have been attempted many times, but an animal moved often will return to its former home. I have heard of an elephant mother moved without her calf in Uganda that travelled back over 500 km to find it, bringing the entire herd with, reducing an exploit costing many thousands of dollars to a waste of time and energy. The other option for removing elephants is to have a cull, which is an unpopular decision. As people, we have created an artificial situation in which a natural area has too many elephants, and many conservationists will argue that it is our responsibility to rectify that imbalance. If it were white-tail deer or rats, all but the hardcore “bunny-huggers” would argue in favour of a cull. However, elephants have such amiable personalities, considerable thinking capabilities, and dare I say soul, that most find the thought of killing them en masse absolutely unbearable. Thus, when the USA withdrew support of an elephant cull in Botswana, the operation was forgotten altogether, much to the locals’ disappointment.
By now, the sheer numbers of elephants have made responsible culling impracticable, so research in sub-Saharan Africa has looked to other methods to try to keep elephant-people interactions to a minimum. Several instances of specialized fencing have shown some promise. Spicy chilli pepper fences and those containing bee nests have been proven to at least somewhat deter pachyderms from crossing them, but are yet to be employed in mass effect. Others are attempting castration campaigns to reduce elephant fertility, another skill and labour intensive but hopeful idea in decreasing elephant numbers for the long run. However, more new ideas are going to be necessary in reducing the conflict.
In addition to elephantine destruction in Chobe, the park has a couple other problems going for it. The great concentration of animals has proven as favourable conditions for disease vector spread. Mongeese (it may be incorrect pluralization, but I’m sticking with it) rooting through human refuse have contracted a novel form of human tuberculosis, and are spreading it amongst themselves. Even more worrisome is the ever present threat of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes the dreaded anthrax. An anaerobic microbe native to the soil, these little guys will sporulate when exposed to oxygen, creating little heat-tolerant environmentally-resistant spores that can last for decades or centuries. Anthrax affects herbivores primarily, as they are most likely to ingest large quantities of bacteria-ridden soil through grazing, but can spread to humans and carnivores through exposure to infected tissues or sanitation issues. Necropsy of infected animals will result in exposure of B. anthracis to the air, resulting in sporulation and exposure of the people doing the necropsy to the disease. Thus, when a carcass is found in the Chobe area, it is burned to kill the organisms within. Every now and then in the park, one can come across the charred smouldering corpse of what once was an elephant or buffalo. This is, of course, preferable to the alternative of letting anthrax be consumed by lions or leopards or various other animals, killing them as well. Unfortunately, park officials do not burn the animals correctly, and use old tires to maintain the flame. Aside from the poisoning this does to the air by burning rubber, the wire left behind is not cleaned up and often eaten by buffalo. This can result in wire poking through the rumen into the pericardium, a condition called hardware disease, creating infection around the heart that kills the animal.
The other large concern in recent years is the amount of overfishing in the Chobe River. Botswana government happily put an end to it on their side; fishing by net is illegal in Botswana. In Namibia, however, on the opposite shore, the problem is so unchecked that their nets span the entirety of the river in a display of foolish recklessness and lack of forethought for future generations of fish in the environment. Not only are there so many that one can hardly go on a boat game tour without have fishermen in line of view, but the nets themselves are entirely unsustainable. The holes in the nets are maybe an inch wide, resulting in a huge amount of bycatch. Everything in the river will be entangled in those nets, small inedible fish alongside the large and desirable tigerfish and Okavango bream. Hauling up nets like this will result in wiping out all but the smallest of organisms in the riverbed, which is a shame considering the huge diversity of birds and other animals dependent on the fish populations. Countless storks, fish eagles, darters, and kingfishers can be seen along the shoals feeding next to crocodiles; these, too, can end up victims to the abundant and poorly cared for nets. I witnessed a giant beast of a crocodile with net wrapped around the back of its lower jaw, a condition likely to cause the ancient monolith to starve and die someday.
Although there are a number of problems, the beauty of the area is undeniable. Much needs to be done to preserve this amazing ecosystem, on the part of various different countries, but I believe that with cooperation a concerted effort can be maintained. I cannot begin to describe in full the natural treasure that is the Chobe river front, so I will let the pictures explain. (As soon as I can download them, anyway.)