As a child, Dr Steve Boyes was “primed” to be bullied. Reed-thin, sporting a pair of oversized glasses and battling a stomach ailment, his mother would describe Boyes and his brother Chris as “stick insects with binoculars”, who sought refuge in the natural world.
By 2001, Boyes, at 21, had explored most of the protected areas of southern Africa, but not the expansive wetland wilderness touted as Africa’s last Eden: Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
When he headed there in 2000 for New Year’s Eve, everything changed. Boyes, an ornithologist and conservation biologist, was “blown away by the vastness, diversity and abundance”.
He moved to the Delta and switched his master’s dissertation, ending up doing his PhD on Meyer’s parrot in the Okavango Delta. Boyes devoted his life to safeguarding the “beating heart” of the planet.
“When I discovered the Okavango Delta, I think I’d been searching for it my entire life and knew the instant when I found it,” says Boyes at the start of the new award-winning feature film, Into the Okavango.
“It was the vastness, this incredible unending wilderness, connected by crossings, lagoons, channels. This unending maze flooding to as much as 22000 square kilometres, making it visible from space.”
In 2015, Boyes, a South African National Geographic Explorer and project leader of the Okavango Wilderness Project, started a multiyear expedition with Angolan, Namibian and South African scientists and indigenous guides to explore the little-known Cuito river system in the Angolan highlands that feeds the Okavango river basin.
Into the Okavango documents their epic, gruelling and mystical 119-day journey, using “makoros” or traditional dug-out canoes, surviving encounters with hippos, and negotiating their way through waterways clogged with trees from man-made fires, set by local hunters, for their pioneering biodiversity survey.
Protecting the Angolan waterways that feed the Okavango is crucial, says Boyes. The delta, in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, receives about 600mm of rainfall between November and March.
“This is not sufficient to sustain the annual floods which depend entirely on the annual floodwaters coming down the Okavango River from the Angolan highlands some 1100km straight upstream.
“This is why we have focused our work since 2015 on these previously-unstudied highlands. The Angolan catchments for the Okavango Delta have been isolated from development and human impacts since the 1960s when the war broke out in Angola. Vast minefields have halted development ever since.”
It took several months to pioneer access to the source lake of the Cuito River using landmine survey teams and armoured vehicles. “As a result, human encroachment is not a problem yet. We have, however, opened the access, and motorbikes and trucks are starting to follow us into this remote depopulated landscape.”
The Okavango Delta, declared a World Heritage Site in 2014, is Africa’s last-remaining intact wetland wilderness, spanning an area exceeding 18000km². It’s the “wild perfect - a delicate thing we need to protect”, says Boyes.
It is home to the largest-remaining population of elephant in the world with over 70000 living in the delta.
“This migratory elephant population forms part of a meta-population of over 200000 elephant and represents more than half the elephants remaining on the planet, African or Asian.
“Keystone populations of lion, leopard, wild dog, cheetah, red lechwe, tsessebe and giraffe depend on the Okavango Delta in its current near-pristine state.
The delta is an “irreplaceable sanctuary for regional biodiversity and megafauna” that has remained unaffected by the plague of rhino and elephant poaching elsewhere.
For Boyes, the expeditions have been deeply personal. “The last three years have been the most exciting and most difficult of my life. We’ve travelled over 6000km on our mokoros, exploring all major rivers in the Okavango and Kwando River Basins.”
Life-changing, he says, isn’t the right description. “Maybe life-affirming, re-creating, rebirth? I’ve changed physically and mentally, strengthened by the wilderness and the present moment.”
He doesn’t mind the Indiana Jones comparisons he’s drawn. “I certainly dress like Indiana Jones, take risks, depend on a bit of luck, and explore faraway places where people hardly ever go.
“In 2015, we made first contact with the Luchaze people in the Nhango community, cut off from the outside world since 1972. No road access, and we were the first ever to navigate the upper reaches of the Cuito River from the source lake to get to their village.
“We have found a few clay pots from a long time ago, some ruins, but no lost ark yet. We’ve found 29 new species to science, new populations of cheetah and wild dog, and hundreds of species not known to be in these remote unexplored highlands.”
The work of his small South African NGO, the WildBird Trust, over the last four years in the Angolan highlands, with the National Geographic Society, “now has far-reaching impact with the protection of a landscape bigger than England, the Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower, the primary water source for the Okavango, Zambezi and Kwando rivers, now the most likely outcome. I’m very proud of our team”.
In December, his project signed a “Protocol of Co-operation” that mandates the initiation of community conservation work and establishment of the largest system of protected areas in the world in the Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower.
“This covers about 8% of Angola’s land area and includes the sources of the Okavango, Zambezi and Kwando River systems.”
Fires, bushmeat trade and slash-and-burn cassava production remain the primary threats.
“If the vast peatlands we have discovered around the source lakes are allowed to dry up and burn due to deforestation and frequent fires, then we will see resilience to the impacts of climate change compromised for the entire river basin.”
Rainfall is projected to decline in the Okavango Delta and increase in the Angolan highlands. “If the Water Tower is destroyed or dams are established, the Okavango Delta will dry up for up to six months of the year and most of the large animals will die or immigrate north into Angola, Namibia, Zambia or Zimbabwe where they can find permanent water.
“In short, it would be cataclysmic for regional biodiversity and flagship wildlife populations.”
But Boyes and his team’s efforts have garnered support at the highest level. “To have the new presidents of Angola and Botswana speaking about the preservation of the Okavango River Basin is incredible. Both are committed to this mission and very importantly Angolan President João Lourenço is establishing a national agency to oversee all development in the Okavango River Basin in south-east Angola.”
Into the Okavango, too, was screened on Capitol Hill in Washington DC to encourage the US Congress to vote for the DELTA Act, to promote sustainable natural resource and wildlife management practices in the greater Okavango River Basin.
“The passing of the DELTA Act and the subsequent signing by President Trump days before the government shutdown was an incredible achievement and point of activation for the global conservation community.
“We believe that conservation media like our film and the recent rhino film, Stroop, are incredibly important catalysts for conservation if supported by strong, objective science and access to government policymakers.”
Being away from his family for seven months of the year is the toughest part of his work.
“Jack Wild is now 5, and Leila River is 1. Nothing can replace being there for your family in person,” he says.
Boyes has set his sights on new landscape conservation opportunities in South Sudan, Somaliland and the DRC. “It’s incredibly important we do everything in our power over the next 10 years to protect Africa’s last-remaining unprotected wild places.
“The sixth extinction is upon us with extinction rates 1000 times higher than any time previously
“The world’s top ecologists all agree that we need to protect at least 50% of our planet’s land area by 2050 or face extinction ourselves (30% by 2030). The next decade is the most important.
“The very fabric of the complex ecosystems that support us, on land and in the oceans, is unravelling and we need to work urgently to halt this.”