I am just back from a week fieldwork in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. It was a very interesting trip, which helped me question some (of my own) engrained thinking patterns. I came here as part of the EU-sponsored DARMA project that aims to stimulate and strengthen local African commonage systems where people manage their natural resources communally rather than privately. We started off in Maun where our partner is located, the Okavango Research Institute (ORI) of the University of Botswana. Now, Maun is a funny place. It oozes wildlife safaris. This is clear when arriving at the tiny airport: dozens of safari companies are present, picking up guests and displaying their offerings. Many people flying into Maun don’t even stay there; they are picked up and put straight on one of the many tiny aircraft waiting to take tourists into some private camp in the delta. Many posters, brochures, flags and paraphernalia in the airport building extol the incredible wildlife assets of the Delta, reinforcing all of the stereotypical images that tourists have come to expect of ‘wild’ Africa. This continues outside of the building, where in the direct vicinity of the airport, most major safari enterprises are located. Shops in Maun also play into the safari image and everywhere you see whites in Khakis driving sturdy 4x4s, organizing what are mainly high-end, often incredibly expensive wildlife experiences. Some operators even charge up to 2000-3000 US$ per night! Of course your champagne is then chilled on arrival and your ‘bushcamp’ adorned with all modern luxuries. In this environment, it is hard to think of the Delta as something other than one giant safari operation. But of course, this is an incredibly skewed and misleading image.
Superbly organized by the super-dynamic and smart couple Lapo and Innocent Magole – the driving force behind the DARMA project in Botswana – we set out into the Delta for our own trip into the ‘bush’. And although I always knew there are many people living in the area, it was incredibly refreshing to focus completely on the livelihoods of these people and not on wildlife. Indeed, in our time in the Delta, we didn’t see any wild animal, safe for half a crocodile and a lost leopard tortoise! And this is exactly what helped me question my own engrained thinking patterns: because the landscape looks like a ‘typical’ safari landscape, you constantly expect an elephant, warthog, buffalo or – perhaps – a lion to appear. But they never did. Instead we saw many goats, cows and donkeys, and many people trying to make a living in a challenging environment. In several community meetings in different villages we were told how wild animals continuously pose a threat to livestock, crops and the lives of people and indeed how on average communities come into conflict with wildlife 3-4 times a day. This of course is a reality that few tourists appreciate. The far majority flies in and out of private camps and is usually shielded from the social consequences of living with dangerous animals (see for example this website, or this one). Yet this is reality for the people in the Delta, something they live with every day.
Now, this is not a rant ‘against’ wildlife – far from it. Many of these animals are amazing, and surely it would have been nice to see them. But for those of us not living with dangerous wildlife, it is all too easy to ignore local people’s challenging realities, let alone the global inequalities that lead to the crazy contradiction of wealthy tourists spending thousands of dollars a day to see wildlife in luxurious settings while being shielded from – and indeed further complicating – the difficult circumstances and dangers that local people face. The safari imagery so prominent upon arrival in Maun further reinforces this contradiction and the inequalities in which they are rooted. The deeper understanding of this reality was for me one of the highlights of this trip (and the reason why I and colleagues – see the VIVA page! – write what we write). The Okavango Delta without wildlife is totally worth it and I can recommend it to anyone.