The Best Place in the World to See Wildlife

Botswana’s Okavango Delta is a Garden of Eden, but its future is threatened by hydropower projects.

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

Aug 25, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

When people ask me, “What’s the best place in the world to see wildlife?” I generally say, “Wherever you happen to be right now. Just look.” They nod politely. After a second they add, “OK, and if I want to travel?” The obvious possibilities come to mind—the rainforests of Costa Rica, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park—along with a few quirkier ones, such as Los Llanos in Venezuela and the Himalayan foothills in Bhutan. In the end though, I always answer, “The Okavango Delta in Botswana.”

The trouble is, I can’t always remember why.

But the other week I was back, on an unexpected side trip from South Africa, and suddenly I knew. It was 6 a.m. and cold (it’s winter there), and we were out in an open Land Rover in an area called Chitabe, as the thin red line of sunrise widened and turned mauve behind a distant line of acacia trees. Now and then, the driver, a photographer friend named Dave Hamman, pulled over to inspect tracks on the road, or turned off the engine to listen for the alarm calls of baboons or francolins, the telltale signs of a predator nearby.

(Photo: Dave Hamman)

Maybe it was the pungent smell of the sagebrush sweeping down the sides of the vehicle, or just the tantalizing uncertainty of being out on the hunt, but it all came back to me. The sunrise faded to a grayish blue, and we picked up the tracks of four big male lions that had wandered the road a little earlier in the morning. But we were more interested in the smaller predators lions tend to intimidate: leopards, cheetahs, and African wild dogs.

Hamman, who has spent much of the past 20 years in the delta, pointed out a couple of giraffes with ears cocked, as if they were noticing something we might want to see. But it didn’t pan out, and after a while, he complained mildly about our poor luck. Meanwhile, I was ticking off the incredible list of wildlife we passed by: the glossy ibis, the fish eagle, and the saddle-billed stork with a red bill and a patch of pure yellow just in front of the eyes. The black-winged stilts waded in shallow water, their pink legs lifting high up behind on each step with an exaggerated movement as if drawing back from a tub that’s a little too hot. A spur-winged goose came in for a landing—more like a crash—ending in a graceless kerplunk. “Tough bird,” said Hamman. “Around here they say you put one in a pot with three rocks, cook it for four days, then throw away the bird and eat the rocks.”

(Photo: Dave Hamman)

Then there were the ungulates—not just the impalas, which are every predator’s favorite fast food, but also big moose-like tsessebes, which can run for bursts of 50 miles an hour, and lechwes, which seem to be able to run on water (a useful trait in a delta). A solitary Cape buffalo stared at us malevolently—“They look at you like you owe them money,” said Hamman—escorted by cattle egrets and oxpeckers.

It reminded me of what I like so much about the Okavango Delta: It doesn’t matter what species you think you’re looking for, because something else at least as interesting almost always turns up along the way.

Water is the secret that attracts such a diversity of wildlife to the Okavango Delta. Every year in January and February, the rains come rushing down from the highlands of Angola, across Namibia’s Caprivi Strip and into Botswana, where they spread out across an ancient lake bed roughly twice the size of Massachusetts. Grasses and marshlands and meandering waterways spring up, meaning food for everyone.

If the water gets too high, the wildlife often crowd together in improbable but scenic groups. On one hillock by a watering hole I saw, in a single binocular view, yellow-billed storks, openbill storks, a slaty egret, a squacco heron, a sacred ibis, and a smallish crocodile, maybe eight feet long, all standing together like commuters waiting for a bus.

In a jackalberry tree, the starlings were gabbling over their meal, while a lilac-breasted roller, all raspberry sherbet at the breast and bright blue below, perched on the perimeter, content to do nothing more than look stunning, an ornithological popsicle. Beneath the trees, a hungry elephant tore up the understory.

If it sounds like the Garden of Eden—and in truth it feels like that—the Okavango Delta also faces the usual threats. Countries to the north want to capture the river flow for a hydropower project, and Botswana has a knack for putting up veterinary fences, which protect its cattle industry at the cost of confusing and killing its migratory wildlife. Subsistence livestock herders and farmers along the delta’s eastern border sometimes poison wildlife or sicken it with the diseases their dogs introduce.

For now, the Okavango Delta is there, largely intact and endlessly beautiful. I’m still going to tell people that the best place to see wildlife is at home, where you can get to know it over months and years and maybe do something to protect it. But I’m not going to lie. I’m back home now and dreaming of the Okavango Delta. It seems to me that the best thing I can do is celebrate this place and encourage other people to visit, if only to remind Botswana and its neighbors that they are the guardians of one of the earth’s great treasures.