Tenting with conservationists in Botswana’s Okavango Delta

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Christiaan’s data aims to provide the people of Botswana with a roadmap to economic solutions before conflicts arise. As he clicks through the slides, years of research unfold before us. I learn that Botswana is home to two of the 10 remaining mega populations of African lions. And lions are a key indicator of the health of the entire ecosystem. “When there’s a disruption in the food chain, lions are a place where you can react very quickly,” explains Christiaan, whose voice is weighed down by the severity of the work ahead to save the species. “As the lions go, so does the ecosystem.”

A night plagued by dreams of barren grasslands and contested big cats gives way to a glorious dawn. As we walk in the relative coolness of the morning, I catch a glimpse of gold in the rain-soaked grass as we bump over a shoulder. “Lion!” I stutter through the open rear window and slam my hand on the Land Cruiser’s roof. “Almost 11 o’clock!” As Keitopetse slams on the brakes, I realize I’ve finally spotted something that isn’t a guinea fowl. It is our team’s first lion, a large adult male – the first lion I have ever seen in the wild.

The cat glows. His presence triggers a primal reaction in my bones, a feeling of awe and fear at the same time. At that moment, I’m beginning to understand what’s at stake for Christiaan in the Okavango Delta. Separated from this radiant beast only by the open side of a pickup truck, our team calmly collects the pills and does what we were trained to do. We log his location, we measure his distance from the road. We send the information to researchers. Then we move on starry.

Weeks pass and I am driven back to Maun. In the hundreds of miles I’ve logged while staying with ACE, we’ve managed to add an incredible variety of wildlife to the log. We never found more lions but we did see honey badgers, caracal, leopard tortoises and wild cats. Dedicating ourselves to wildlife work allowed us to gain a foothold in a way that imbued these encounters with meaning for me – more, I think, than any curated sighting would have done.

Dining nearby at Maun’s Dusty Donkey Cafe is a smattering of explorers, property developers and miners, all of whom transpire with ambitions to save wildlife, build wealth or expand their portfolios in this remote corner of Botswana. A few hundred yards away, the single-engine Cessna that introduced me to the Okavango awaits another group of tourists looking for a private view of the delta from the sky.

My understanding of this paradise has evolved over the weeks spent with passionate conservationists and wildlife trackers. What I discovered was a piece of wilderness that was in desperate need of a helping hand – one that anyone with the time and determination can lend.