Okavango Delta: This unique geographic oasis is at risk – and so are we all

OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana – Portuguese explorers called it “terra do fim do mundo,” land at the end of the Earth. And for good reason.

Africa’s Okavango River Basin, which covers 125,000 square miles across Angola, Botswana and Namibia, is home to the largest remaining population of African elephants, as well as significant numbers of lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and hundreds of species of birds. The vast water system is in the middle of one of the driest and most inhospitable places in the world – the Kalahari Desert. It breathes vibrant life into a landscape that would otherwise seem lifeless and covered in sand.

From land, the Okavango Delta seems almost prehistoric. Standing there, you would think you were the only human left in the world as you look out to a green, endless horizon spotted with bushes and trees that have obviously endured years of hungry elephants and giraffes. Far from the sounds of cars beeping or phones buzzing – or working Wi-Fi! – there is an overwhelming silence interrupted only by bird calls and the rustle of leaves. Being in the middle of the wilderness, removed from the comforts of modern life, gives you an opportunity to realize your place in this world as a human, and why it’s so important that we protect fragile wildernesses such as this.

Seeing the Okavango Delta from the air, it is even more obvious how unique and incredible this ecosystem is. Waterways stretch in every direction like little highways formed by animal architects such as hippos, elephants and buffalo. Lush islands made from termite mounds are scattered in the middle of crystal clear bodies of water. Here, life moves in a circle. The lives of the smallest termites guide the growth of vegetation, which feeds the animals that migrate to this region, and so on. One small hiccup in this system’s health could have a huge impact on the animals and people who depend on it.

Why should people care? The answer is simple: We are all interconnected. And this is one of the greatest conservation opportunities left, and a rare chance to intervene before it reaches a crisis point.

In 2014, the delta became the 1,000th entry on the United Nations list of unique “World Heritage” sites. Not many people in the U.S. and around the world are familiar with the Okavango River Basin, which is why South African conservation biologist Steve Boyes is sounding the alarm. Beyond the animals that depend on it, it’s also a vital source of water for about 1 million people. However, this oasis is now threatened by human activity along the rivers that feed it.

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