Selinda-Vumbura, one of Africa’s last great wilderness areas

I was lucky enough to travel with three fellow ecologists (from the Universities of Botswana and the Witwatersrand) recently to one of the more remote and beautiful areas of Africa; the Selinda-Vumbura region – in northern Botswana. Largely inaccessible to all but the most affluent tourists, and research scientists, the area lies just north of the Okavango Delta and incorporates diverse habitat types, from wetland to cathedral mopane. The large mammals are classically ‘old Africa’ (see Fig. 1), and if one enjoys bird-watching as I do, then there is opportunity to see rare, IUCN-listed species like the wattled crane (Fig 2). It is remarkable to witness a wilderness that once occurred across Africa, inclusive of hominids of course.

Fig. 1: Jumbo in the Selinda region

Tagging onto a vegetation survey excursion, our outing was effectively a research reconnaissance given the conservation value (and opportunities) in the region. Botswana, like Australia is a ‘lucky country’, endowed with fantastic natural resources and mineral reserves, as well as a small population. These factors, as well as a progressive conservation ethic within the Botswana Government have ensured that many large mammal populations, such as lion and jumbo remain stable across northern Botswana [see 1,2].

The broad Okavango-Selinda area is very interesting from a conservation science perspective in that the land management matrix includes Game Reserves (Moremi), National Parks (Chobe), Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) and Pastoral areas. The WMAs are typically concessions to high-level tourist operators, although quite a few used to be leased to trophy hunting operators. Hunting was banned in Botswana in 2013; as far as I can tell to address government-level concerns regards declining populations of large mammals, although this likely would have been driven by illegal harvest. This of course provides opportunity to explore the social-ecological ramifications through the loss of income in areas that are quite marginal.

Fig. 2: Wattled crane, Vumbura plains

There is also opportunity to explore further human-wildlife conflict in the particular the Khwai Development Trust area, where people literally eke out a living from subsistence agriculture and pastoralism amongst wildlife. Some recent interesting work on wildlife–livestock coexistence has been done through the Okavango Research Institute [see 3], and the future of large mammal conservation in southern Africa will to some extent have to incorporate a pastoral component.

Anyhow, I am privileged to have witnessed a wilderness such as the Okavango Delta and the Selinda area. As conservation scientists there is a lot of opportunity in the region to explore highly topical issues such as the effects of the banning of trophy hunting, and human-wildlife conflict and co-existence. Hopefully we can work toward the preservation of such a wilderness, and with the development of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, I am hopeful. Now to find a way to get back!

References cited: 1. Bauer H, Chapron G, et al. (2015) Lion populations are declining rapidly across Africa, except in intensively managed areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112: 14894-14899. 2. Wittemyer G, Northrup JM, et al. (2014) Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111: 13117-13121. 3. Fynn RWS, Augustine DJ, Peel MJS, et al. (2016) Strategic management of livestock to improve biodiversity conservation in African savannahs: a conceptual basis for wildlife–livestock coexistence. Journal of Applied Ecology Online Early

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