Ghost Elephants in Angola
Press secretary at Animat Habitat
Over 95 per cent of the water that flows to the delta originates from rainfall in the Angolan highlands. There it is captured by source lakes and rivers like the Cuito, Cuanavale, Cuiva, Cuando and Lungue-Bungo and so on. These rivers are surrounded by vast Miombo woodlands creating an ecosystem characterized by seepages, streams, oxbow lakes, and ridge-lines that make up the Okavango-Zambezi water tower. The water tower is critically important for sustaining water flow to the rest of the Okavango watershed. — National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) [nationalgeographic.org]
Jewel of the Kalahari
The seasonal rains travel to the Okavango delta by two main rivers: the steep Cubango river in the west and the more gradual Cuito river in the east. These rivers converge at the southern border of Angola to form the Okavango river. The Okavango river then flows through a strip in Namibia and into Botswana, spreading out into the vast basin, driving the dramatic seasonal expansion of life in the delta.
“It is the one-thousandth UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for its animals and immeasurable feeling of wilderness, it is a major tourist destination. […] The delta has become a conservation beacon of possibility. It is what happens when people pay attention to the environmental wealth of a place, and instate protections, and as a result, the delta has prospered. But not all residents have been included in its success.” — Kerllen Costa, Guardians of the River e/1: ‘Power to Protect’ (2021)
In partnership with National Geographic Society, Wild Bird Trust presents a human history of the Okavango delta in the podcast: Guardians of the River (2021). The podcast is hosted by Kerllen Costa, program director for NGOWP Angola. The podcast explores how to protect some of the most remote and wild places on the planet, starting with the Okavango delta and the source lakes. 
“The life is the water, and the water knows no borders. It twists and turns through Angola and Namibia, until it converges in Botswana, spreading into one mighty freshwater delta called the Okavango. The delta, and the rivers that feed it, are the beating heart of water for three countries in southern Africa, thousands of elephants, millions of birds, hundreds of hippos… But sometimes the water does not fill the delta and no one really knows why. For centuries, during the driest parts of the year, seasonal floods have interrupted the Kalahari desert—the largest continuous stretch of sand on the planet. Without the water, the desert takes over. The reeds choke the the channels, and the animals and the people wander inwards, deeper and deeper, searching. […] And what if all of a sudden, it stopped? ” — Kerllen Costa, Guardians of the River e/1: ‘Power to Protect’ (2021) [wildbirdtrust.com]
“A group of elephants in the Okavango Delta wades through water…” Botswana © Cory Richards [films.nationalgeographic.com]
Guardians of the River (podcast, 2021) continues the conversation from National Geographic Documentary Films Into the Okavango. This 2018 documentary was introduced for its outstanding wildlife cinematography in an earlier broadcast: Wildlife Documentary – Picture.
Okavango Wilderness Project
National Geographic Documentary Films Into the Okavango (2018) introduced a multi-year study to serve as the scientific foundation for establishing one of the largest transfrontier protected areas in sub-Saharan Africa—spanning the four nations that share the Okavango river basin: Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Angola. Led by National Geographic Fellow Steve Boyes, the expeditions found where the river comes from – and what is happening to the water along the way – in an effort to protect the vast delta ecosystem in its entirety. Steve was thinking big. An interdisciplinary team of scientists and experts from the region and around the world covered fifteen thousand kilometers – from source to sand – counting and identifying wildlife.
The team started at the source lakes and soon came upon a peatland, which Kerllen Costa describes in Guardians of the River, “a marshy layer of decaying plants and mud.” Kerllen continues “And while satellite images can show the path of a river, nothing but dragging boats across boggy land exposes the landscape.” The source lakes in Angola are the water tower for this system. These source lakes are surrounded by vast, high-altitude, high-rainfall Miombo woodlands and – in-between – there are sponge-like peatlands, with the whole system flowing into the river.
Hypothesis: Termites and mushrooms.
Termites and mushrooms are the mechanics of the Okavango delta.
Termites have constructed millions of porous sand tunnels that fill with water when the delta floods, helping to expand, distribute and absorb the water. The termite mounds themselves also become islands, where sediments and nutrients collect, allowing the area to become a web of waterways, food, and shelter. — Guardians of the River (2021)
The water tower is basically a giant sand dune, with a forest on top, and a lot of rainfall. Doctor of Environmental Development, University of Natal, South Africa, and National Geographic Fellow—Steve Boyes submits, “this is the only place in the world that you have this high-altitude sand hump that is acting like a mountain glacier.” Termites are the bulk herbivore up there, and Dr Boyes reasons that they are taking the grass and woody matter underground, “creating cavities to store water in, increasing the nutrient levels in the sand.” When fires are set in natural cycles to fertilize the sandy soils, this combination produces nitrogen, which produces fungi that show on the surface of the forested dune. Steve sees the fungi, and hypothesizes there is a termite kingdom and giant mushroom under the sand, which acts as a sponge that is helping to slowly absorb and release water over time.
Close hypothesis: Termites and mushrooms.
“These peat bogs hold as much as twenty-five times their own dry weight in water before slowly releasing it. [Dr Boyes and his crew] are literally walking on top of the sponge holding the water that eventually floods the Okavango delta.” — Into the Okavango (documentary, 2018)
“A raging inferno swept across the floodplains opposite the overnight campsite on the Cuito River.” Angola © James Kydd [films.nationalgeographic.com]
A peatland near the source waters was only the beginning.
On that first documented expedition, the team found flames dancing across the peat, turning the land into charred, dried sand. Widespread human-set fires from hunting, slash-and-burn agriculture, and charcoal production now represent one of the greatest threats to the source waters. In the documentary Into the Okavango (2018), Dr Boyes describes trees escaping the fires, ”now growing into the river, choking it.“ The expedition found a renewed sense urgency. There followed a number of wildlife surveys, and after engaging with communities along the river, Kerllen found a more powerful device for inspiring people to take action: a story.
This is the story told in Guardians of the River (podcast, 2021). The podcast includes experts from the first expedition as well as the story behind the film, Into the Okavango (documentary, 2018). “The prestige and attention of the documentary”, Kerllen invokes in the podcast, “transformed a ten-thousand dollar research expedition into a sixteen-million dollar, multinational conservation effort.” National Geographic Society launched the Okavango Wilderness Project in 2017 in an effort to conserve the delta ecosystem. The project has become one of the top-most funded in the 150 year history at National Geographic Society.
We recognize the partnership of National Geographic Society and Wild Bird Trust with local communities in the Okavango watershed as a critical case for elephant conservation at a time when Angola is readying to open its borders to elephants and to the world. Animat Habitat has named National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) as an official selection to receive a percentage of revenue from scene one: White Elephant. This is part of our mission to support wildlife conservation projects on the ground in Africa.
Ghost Elephants of Angola
So there is something important to know about elephants…
“It is in an elephant’s nature to knock things down. They pull at branches, rip up tree roots, peel-off bark. This is how they find food. If their foraging space is small, they are destroyers, and will totally wreck a forest, but if the space is big, their damage can actually make a forest grow.” — Kerllen Costa, Guardians of the River e/2: ‘Ghost Elephants of Lisima’ (2021)
Without elephants, the balance that we speak about is lost.
“Apparently this landscape is a contact point for forest and savanna. [People] here have reported ten years ago having seen forest elephants come down. These are typically elephants you find in the Congo, northern part of Angola… It is a very interesting elephant population. They have had a really tough time […] the last few decades. But now hopefully they have the opportunity to come back. It is our job to create a safe space for elephants any way we can in Africa. This is a big opportunity for that.” — Steve Boyes, Guardians of the River e/2: ‘Ghost Elephants of Lisima’ (2021) [wildbirdtrust.com]
The biggest challenge for elephants in Angola has been war.
“And so what do the elephants do?” President of Botswana—Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi posed the question rhetorically at a public event in 2019, then continued, “So you have the bombs that go off [in Angola] and sometimes [there are] guns in the hands of people who should not have them, and you have landmines.” The elephants of Angola have migrated to Botswana, Dr Masisi clarified, “we have a lot of refugees.” People in Botswana have been made to carry the environmental and financial burden of an elephant population that includes refugees from neighbouring nations, in particular from Angola. Human-wildlife conflict has become a political pressure point.
The question then, can we encourage elephants to move back into Angola?
“The land at the end of the Earth, where the wind turns. […] Beneath the ground lie hundreds of thousands of landmines. […] Angola's brutal 27-year civil war ended in 2002 but for the people of this region, the presence of landmines is a source of fear and trauma.” — The HALO Trust [halotrust.org]
The Angolan government made an incredible gesture in 2019 and investment of sixty million dollars to The HALO Trust to clear all landmines as far as they can in south-east Angola. 
“That is not going to happen in a year,” warns Dr Boyes in Guardians of the River (podcast, 2021), “it is going to happen in five or ten years.” The risk for human-wildlife conflict in Angola remains very high, Dr Boyes explains, “because you do not want an elephant that is stressed out, and that will happen if you just parachute this poor thing into the upper catchments of the Okavango.” That elephant is going to go straight to the nearest maize field, Steve further explains, “because [the elephant] will not know where to find specialized food items that you do find up there.” He suggests that by 2030, “Angola will be a lot more ready to accept tens of thousand of elephants – the roads will be built, technology will have advance so that we can transport them more safely – it is not the right time now.” If Angola can first be made safe for elephants, with anti-poaching policies and training with local communities, Dr Boyes thinks elephants will return on their own. No conveyor belts or helicopters required.
“Now, if we do not protect the sources, the Lisima landscape up at the top has no resilience and neither does the Okavango delta. Both systems become incredibly threatened. Elephants as a species really become threatened. So, the wildlife corridor is a way of creating safe space for elephants to expand into, and obviously, elephants are ambassadors for the other animals that they live with. They are the big engineers of the forest, planting the trees and breaking them down.” — Steve Boyes, Guardians of the River e/2: ‘Ghost Elephants of Lisima’ (2021) [wildbirdtrust.com]
Some steps have been taken. NGOWP has identified the region where the headwaters of the Okavango, Cuando, Zambezi, and Kwanza rivers originate as the key to the long-term conservation of the water tower. Governments, conservation organizations, and local communities have established a transfrontier conservation area to allow for elephant migrations across the border of Angola, Botswana and three neighbouring countries. Kerllen explains that Dr Boyes is advocating to safeguard the waterways between each of the parks. “If he is successful,” Kerllen conditions, “it will be the largest transfrontier wildlife corridor in the world, kind of like an elephant super-highway.”
Now, if refugee elephants return to Angola, then their key will be the ghosts elephants. These ghost elephants are those rumored to have remained in Angola to this day, hidden in the darkest parts of the forest.
Dr Boyes and the team on expedition stressed the significance of finding elephants in Angola. “We need to retain that cultural knowledge,” Dr Boyes reminds, “that is taught from mother to daughter, to son, in the ghost elephant population.” Steve sees this as a secret to the success of elephants integrating back into Angola, and secrets are learned over many many generations.
“The very thing that science teaches us, that we are part of a holistic ecosystem, we too often overlook. And instead, we focus on the one species that intrigues us. Sometimes it is elephants. And sometimes… It is humans. But if being an Angolan has taught me anything, it is that to truly save either, we must think about them both.” — Kerllen Costa, Guardians of the River e/2: ‘Ghost Elephants of Lisima’ (2021) [wildbirdtrust.com]
Kerllen opens the podcast to perspectives of the local people. And represents his own involvement in eastern Angola. Who are we to know what is best for a region?
Kerllen wonders if life there may have carried on the way the local people have for generations, for the most part. He thinks, “The people of Tempué would continue to walk days to access their monthly pension.” Kerllen continues, “They would avoid the shores of the source lakes, the animals would hide in the darkest parts of the forest, and the Miombo woodlands would continue to shelter the region, for the most part.” Without outside intervention from NGOWP, or from The Halo Trust, the landmines would stay in the ground. And landmines do help keep people out.
The reality Kerllen sees is that organizations like NGOWP, and like The HALO Trust, cannot sit back and do nothing. All along the Okavango watershed, international companies are beginning to survey the land for drilling and logging and mining and so on. Kerllen concedes, “the outside world is coming for this region regardless.” And he concludes that NGOWP has a responsibility to get there before the big oil companies and big tourism industries. An investment in removing the landmines also fuels a local economy. The Okavango delta is an opportunity to do things differently.
Angola: The Land at the End of the Earth, 2017 © The HALO Trust
Guardians of the Okavango
As more land mines from the decades-long civil war are decommissioned, more roads open up, and the outside world is encroaching into the isolated communities and the surrounding wilderness in Angola. The illegal commercial bushmeat trade has picked up as a result, as have unregulated development, charcoal production and logging and so on. The legal business of tourism lodges in a national reserve, however, remains complicated for some smaller local communities. Whether or not we consider humans as part of wilderness will inform how we conserve a place, Kerllen deliberates, “and specifically its designation.” A national park. A wilderness area. A privately owned tourist designation. Each of these have different implications for who can live and travel within the protected region.
History: Moremi Reserve.
A reserve in the Okavango delta.
Botswana became a British protectorate in 1885. A protectorate establishes its own local government, so for the newly formed culture of Botswana (Bechuanaland), this was made up of a council of eight tribes, with eight territories. A number of minority tribes were not recognized, most were absorbed into the eight. Botswana and Angola later became independent, however the circumstances were very different. This history is retold in part by Kerllen in Guardians of the River, “Angola still needed to figure out a new government system, and barely had time to make sense of it before tumbling into civil war.” Kerllen turns to the other side of the border, “Botswana had no land mines, no battles for ivory.”
River Bushmen are the first inhabitants of the delta, also known as San peoples, also known as BaSarwa. Then, there were smaller tribes of river people, like the WaYei (also written as baYeyi), and they were all in a way absorbed into the BaTawana—a tribe from the south with power, and guns. Thalefang Charles, Botswana photo-journalist, and Botswana producer of Guardians of the River, outlines the roots of tribal recognition in Botswana.
“The WaYei migrated to the delta from Angola in the early 1800s. It is clear they knew how to live on the rivers because of their fishing nets and their mokoros, and because there are records that they could tolerate living with malaria when so many others could not. The water was their natural home. At the same time that the WaYei arrived from the north, another tribe – the BaTawana – arrived from the south. The BaTawana were a larger population, and they were unaccustomed to life on the water. They came from the desert. And while it seems the WaYei should have had the upper hand in making the delta their home, the BaTawana had something else that the WaYei did not: guns.” — Thalefang Charles, Guardians of the River e/5: ‘The Edge of Home’ (2021)
Ultimately, the BaTawana ruled the Okavango territory, and became its representative in the house of chiefs. They would determine land management, including some progressive conservation reforms. In 1963, in honor of a late BaTawana chief, the inner portion of the delta was declared as the Moremi game reserve, named after a BaTawana tribal leader and not anyone else, like say the WaYei.
“A few things happened. First, the reserve was extended to included fourty per cent of the Okavango delta area, and then the rest of the delta was further divided into eighteen wildlife management areas, and a controlled hunting area, which is patrolled by a community trust. These portions of land can be leased by tour operators or private entities, which is supposed to funnel money back to the communities. […] The idea was that, yes, people will leave the delta, and yes, hunting will be regulated to protect the animals, but the people will also move to larger permanent villages and they will be given the power to manage community land trusts and to make money from that.” — Thalefang Charles, Guardians of the River e/5: ‘The Edge of Home’ (2021)
A national reserve designation required anyone in the delta to have a permit in order to hunt. However, there is reason to believe that the designation was also intended to preserve the cultural hunting heritage of the local people. Botswana was different. The tribal chiefs had donated the land. The BaTawana governed over how and why the area should be protected. The first and foremost tenant of the society was that conservation in and around the delta, “took into consideration the rights, customs and requirements of the local African population.”
Some of the smaller tribes that were not recognized as different, like the WaYei, have thus not been represented in government. Some people within these smaller tribes remain at a loss when it comes to benefiting from their tribal land. The WaYei have been made to feel like a tourist in their ancestral home. Kerllen grapples with the intent of the reserve—the dichotomy of whether to conserve the animals for hunting, allowing the local communities to continue a way of life, or, “to protect the animals from hunting, for conservation, but resulting in the displacement of people from the area.”
Kerllen also notes the distinction between tribal land and a land trust. Tribal land in this case belongs to the government of Botswana. Community trusts will lease it from the government, and then sublease it to international investors to set up tourism operations. Kerllen explains that such a territory is managed collectively by, “a group of people who have been in the environment, historically.” Tribes get to say what happens to tribal land.
In 2016, the high court of Botswana recognized that historically, minority tribes were not given equal rights. Kerllen adds, “And the court acknowledged that the WaYei were truly a separate tribe, with their own language and culture.” Kerllen concludes that legal recognition is the first step for minority tribes to gain equality in Botswana, “to be considered a tribe, like the BaTawana.”
Close history: Moremi Reserve.
The stories sound familiar to Kerllen, he echoes, “Someone, somewhere consented.” But it does not sound like they were given a choice.
Tourism is big in the delta, and it is big for Botswana. However, designations to conserve the delta have had an unfortunate history of excluding some local tribes who know its rivers and its ecosystem most intimately. About a hundred-thousand tourists fill the Okavango lodges every year. And the iconic mokoro is their vessel for experiencing the delta. The inventors of the mokoro—the WaYei are not benefiting much from the delta, and yet their culture is appropriated for commercial tourism. Kerllen believes that the involvement of people like the WaYei is an important asset for the delta, and that it is important to recognize the local people for their contributions. Kerllen adds, “and then make sure they also benefit from their wisdom, otherwise it will be lost, too.” Some local tribes may know some mokoro ‘pollers’ who have become certified guides, polling tourists in the delta. More often, the people in these smaller tribes are not benefiting from the commercial tourism industry. The WaYei are not getting any royalties for their invention of the mokoro.
“If there was one symbol for the Okavango delta, it would be the mokoro. It is the ubiquitous human emblem of the region. A wooden dugout canoe invented by the WaYei—a local tribe that resides in Botswana on the outskirts of the Delta. The WaYei once used mokoros to fish, move from island to island… But as the Okavango delta gained international attention, the mokoro has taken on new meaning. They are everywhere. Posters. Pamphlets. Advertisements for the delta.” — Kerllen Costa, Guardians of the River e/6: ‘Koki's Plan’ (2021)
As important a story as this is for local Angolans, and regionally for southern Africans, Guardians of the River has contextualized a human story about how we treat our water systems, and the people who live on them. Let the future of the Kavango-Zambezi water tower be an Angolan story. Let the story be told by people who speak to the language, and who belong to the water system. The delta can still be a model for conservation in Africa and around the world.