Today is World Nature Conservation Day, and where better to celebrate it than the Okavango Delta? The Delta is one of the world’s last true wildernesses, a stronghold of biological diversity that is home to some of the planet’s most endangered species. From wild dogs to elephants, pangolins to cheetahs, the existence of the Delta is a huge reason why these species have not yet been driven to extinction. In this blog we compare the conservation stories of two of Africa’s most iconic animals: the wild dog and the white rhino. One is a beautiful story of success, where a species once persecuted and hunted as a pest was brought back from the brink of extinction. The other is a story of an animal that awaits a conservation miracle or risks going extinct forever.
The Okavango Delta is constantly in flux, creating the diversity of habitats necessary to support such species abundance. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
Wild dogs are southern Africa’s most endangered large carnivore species. They also happen to be one our favourite animals to work with. Their endless curiosity, fascinating social dynamics, and joyful greeting ceremonies never make for a dull day in the bush. These beautiful, dappled hounds number only around 5,600 today, of which Botswana is home to the largest wild population. 5,600 may not sound like a conservation success story, but in the late-90s, wild dogs were going extinct at an alarming rate due to human-animal conflict. This species would have been wiped off the planet were it not for the hard work of conservationists across Southern Africa. As a top predator, wild dogs are essential for keeping their preys population in check. Without them, over-grazing and desertification would increase, and other species detrimentally impacted in a knock-on effect. So what changed for the wild dog?
Southern Africa's most endangered large carnivore, the African wild dog, looks up from its meal. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley
Firstly, the protected status and maintenance of the Okavango Delta concessions and national parks has created a safe environment for these animals to flourish within, far from human impacts. Secondly, an improved understanding of wild dog biology and behaviour has led to scientific-based conservation solutions. For example, the pioneering research done by the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust found that wild dogs could be deterred from encroaching too close to settlements using urine scent-marking from competing packs. Thirdly, finally, and most importantly, a change in human attitude. Wild dogs were once thought of as brutal pests that would murder any human they came across. Today, however, these astounding animals are recognised to be remarkably tolerant of humans and are top of every safari-goers wish-lists. This shift in public opinion, both abroad and here at home, brings tourism to Botswana, creating jobs and contributing to the local economy. Public education programmes have worked with local communities to recognise that the value wild dogs bring to the country means that these beautiful creatures are much better off alive.
With each new litter of pups, a new legacy is born and the prospect of the survival of this species increases. Photo credit: Liz Johnston
Tragically, the story of the rhino in the delta is very different to that of the wild dog. While rhinos play an important role in their ecosystems as large herbivores, their greatest value is arguably symbolic. If saved, they are a symbol of hope and possibility. If lost, these gentle giants are a symbol of what is to come for thousands of Africa’s other endangered animals; a tragic reminder of mankind’s brutal footprint on this planet. So how could this safe haven for other endangered species, famous for being one of the world’s final wildernesses, be the same Delta that brought the wild dog back from the brink?
Like the rhino, if we don't protect the Okavango Delta, our other iconic species will be lost too.
The earliest evidence of rhinos in Botswana estimated that populations numbered in the tens of thousands. By the late 19th century, however, rampant hunting and poaching caused their numbers to plummet. Despite the reintroduction of 156 rhinos in the 1960’s, rhinos were locally extinct once again by 1992. Between 2001 and 2003, the reintroduction of four black and four white rhinos were the first to set foot on the Okavango’s harsh soil in nearly 10 years. Since then, hundreds more were introduced. But the success of these valiant efforts were mixed: the news of the arrival of the tiny new-born black and white calves Dimpho (‘Many Gifts’) and Boipuso (‘Independence’) was overshadowed by further reports of brutal poaching. Today, the dwindling rhino population is thanks to the efforts of sophisticated multinational syndicates. The reason? The demand for the rhino’s iconic horns for their supposed ‘medicinal properties’, despite the fact that these horns are made from a material no different to our own hair and nails.
For our Community Education project (currently on pause due to Coronavirus), we translate our documentaries into Setswana and broadcast them in the local communities. In doing so, we hope to change the narrative on certain species, for those most impacted by them. Photo credit: Noah Falklind
But the miracle that befell the wild dog’s story could still be possible, with a change of perception from rhinos as commodities, to rhinos as living, breathing, social, and beautiful animals. However, to put it in the words of Dr. John McNutt, founder of the Botswana Wild Dog Research Project, "success in any conservation effort anywhere in the world, whether directed at an endangered species or tropical forest, will depend on the social and economic security of the people who live directly in its shadow." This is where you come in. Sustainable tourism is the key to Botswana’s long-term development and prosperity, by creating stable jobs and supporting the local economy. It’s the justification to preserve the Delta, and the animals that rely on it, and the source of the funding that finds solutions to save them. Coronavirus has been a brutal reminder of where we would be without it. So, visit Botswana, support local, and save our animals.
Text by Hannah Gormley