Pula and the Baby Boom!
Here in Botswana, water is so scarce and revered that our currency “pula” literally translates to “rain”. Fortunately for the animals that rely on it, pula has just arrived to Botswana- and what a sight it is. Around midday, bubbling cumulonimbus clouds crowd the sky, and if we’re lucky, send thundering rainstorms crashing below. Having grown up in the UK, I have seen first-hand how the rain in Botswana simply cannot be compared to the drizzles that frequent European skies. Howling gales come first, seemingly from nowhere. The entire plains of long grass are whipped up into a frenzy and your ears fill with the heave of ancient branches responding to the onslaught. Then, the storms come thick and fast, blinding your vision and turning the once-stable road you were driving on into a river. Despite this, I have to say that there is really no better feeling in the world than staying snug and dry under canvas protection, while the rains batter and echo off the roof above you.
A storm builds. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
In an instant, it’s over. The first thing that hits you is the familiar homely smell of clean air and wet earth. As the rain hits the summer-scorched ground, a Streptomyces bacteria blooms in its wake. The pounding of the rain releases their by-product, a molecule called geosmin, into the air, to which human smell is extremely sensitive. As you unzip your canvas protection, the landscape around you is seemingly transformed. Rain glints off every surface, and in an instant you are surrounded by dazzling hues of green and gold. The subject you were filming preens itself and then shakes off the rain, sending a shock of golden droplets whizzing in every direction. Soon, the sun peeks out behind the clouds once more, and they bathe in its warm light. Some animals revel in these conditions. For a leopard, the confusion of smells, sight and sound creates the perfect conditions for a hunt. For the impala, however, they’d rather stay dry under the shade of the enormous kigalia trees, unaware of the danger that now surrounds them.
A curious and soaked hyena cub investigates us. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
What a difference this is to the dry season, which immediately precedes these showers. In October, the Delta reaches its hottest extremes and temperatures soar. The floodwaters dwindle to shallow pools, which emaciated and increasingly desperate animals flock to, at the mercy of their predators. The dust stirs under the most delicate of touches and the air is so thick with it that your shower runs dark brown. The arrival of lightening triggers enormous wildfires, that spread easily in the tinder grass, engulfing everything in its path, which will only truly be extinguished with the onset of the heavy rainstorms. The extreme temperatures render most of the animals still during the heat of the day, so in the cooler pale gold dusk and dawns they must hunt, socialise and guard their territories. But another important activity is at hand during this time, and the antelope’s bellies swell with the tell-tale signs of pregnancy.
A newborn impala lamb rests in the bushes. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
By the time it reaches the rainy season, there is a baby boom across the entire Okavango Delta. In the space of a few weeks, the warthog population nearly doubles, and they blaze out of their burrows to explore their new world. Impala’s are born and, after a few unsuccessful attempts, take their first wobbly steps. Within minutes they can run, their disproportionate spindly legs occasionally tripping them up. These newborns are, unfortunately, the equivalent of fast food for our local predator populations. Lion and leopard cubs mewl for their mothers, and hornbill chicks call desperately for their insect-laden father as he breaks open the cement walls that keep them trapped in the hollows of trees. All feed on the termite alates that emerge from their mounds in droves at the first heavy rains of the season. The black sky turns blue once more with the frenzied feeding of birds of prey and even the opportunistic predators take swipes at this immense and unconventional source of protein.
An aerial view of the Delta during 2018's drought. Photo credit: Liz Johnston
The rains should last us until March. Over the course of this time, the landscape will once again become unrecognisable as grasses grow to reach eye-level. While it’s the hardest time to find game, it’s definitely the most rewarding. These rains must sustain the entire ecosystem until the floodwaters trickle down from their source in the highlands of Angola once more. But there’s always a risk that they won’t come. Two years ago, we saw a huge drought as poor rains saw barely a trickle of floodwater make it to the southern reaches of the Delta. Hippos and crocodiles died in their thousands, while the predator population blossomed. We were amazed then, when against all expectation, we received a decent flood this year and the populations of their prey could be balanced once more. We can only hold our thumbs and cross our fingers that this year, we’ll get the huge amount of pula that’s been predicted for us!
Written by Hannah Gormley