Botswana's large mammals are typical of the savannah areas of southern Africa. The large predators are here: lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog and spotted hyena. Cheetah are found in higher densities here than in most other areas of the subcontinent, and northern Botswana has one of Africa's three strong populations of wild dogs.
Elephant and buffalo occur in large herds that roam throughout the areas where they can find water. Rhino had largely been wiped out throughout the wilds of northern Botswana, though are now being slowly reintroduced into one of the private areas of Moremi. So far only white have been brought in, but there are plans to reintroduce black rhinos too.
Antelope are well represented, with impala, springbok, tsessebe and red lechwe all numerically dominant in different areas – depending on the environment. The sheer range of Botswana's ecosystems means that if you move about there is a really wide range of totally different species to be seen.
Because the Okavango area is so well watered, its natural vegetation is very lush and capable of supporting a high density of game in the dry season. This spreads out to the surrounding areas during the earlier months of the year – accounting for the sheer volume of big game to be found in northern Botswana's parks and private reserves.
Game migrations – historical factors
Like most of Africa's big game, some of Botswana's larger animals have major seasonal migrations – or at least used to have, until relatively recently. The 'big picture' was that large numbers of big herbivores put a great strain on the vegetation in any given locale, and so moving around gave the plants time to recover. Thus the basic patterns were for the game to move out into the Kalahari's drier areas during the rains, when they would have no difficulty finding small pools to drink from, and then to gradually migrate back to sources of permanent water as the dry season progressed.
The main species involved were elephant, buffalo, zebra, wildebeest and hartebeest. These migrations still occur, and do affect the game densities in many areas, although they're much reduced due to two main factors.
First, competition for land from humans and their domestic stock which has reduced the possible range of the wildlife, and caused particular problems by monopolising some of the few areas of permanent water in the Kalahari.
Second, the erection of long, game-proof, disease-control fences which have appeared across historical migration routes in the Kalahari. The first of these was in 1954, in response to the EU's insistence that to import Botswana's beef, the country must have an effective strategy for containing and dealing with outbreaks of foot and mouth disease.
The relative damage done by these two factors is still a hotly debated issue in Botswana, but the results were serious. In some years tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of animals, mostly wildebeest, died of thirst or starvation. Many were in very close proximity to the fences. Some blame the fences directly; others regarded them as a scapegoat for the real cause – the scale of human encroachment on the Kalahari. Whatever the cause, Botswana no longer has migrations of this scale.
See Mike Main's Kalahari: Life's Variety in Dune and Delta
for a rational overview of this debate, various issues of Botswana Notes and Records
(especially 1984) for more detailed partisan arguments, and Mark & Delia Owens' book Cry of the Kalahari
for an impassioned but one-sided view of the story of people who observed it at firsthand.
Game migrations – the current story
Mention the word 'migration' and there's a tendency to picture millions of wildebeest in the Serengeti, fording rivers of waiting crocodiles and filling endless flat plains. That's not what you get in Botswana, so forget those images.
What you do find is a modest but noticeable drift of game away from the main water points of the Chobe, Linyanti and Okavango around the start of the rains – usually somewhere around November – and a gradual return as the dry season progresses. However, the precise details vary with the species of game.Elephant
have broadly similar movements. As the rains come their large herds split into much smaller family groups, of which some move away from the Linyanti and Okavango systems. They spread out into the drier areas, especially the vast swathes of land dominated by mopane which lie between these areas (Wildlife Management Areas NG14/15/16/18/20). Those from the Chobe Riverfront areas similarly split, heading into the Chobe Forest Reserve and the rest of Chobe National Park, while some move east of the Chobe Park into Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, and the Matetsi area between that and the Zambezi.
From around May they start to head back, and gradually join up into larger herds, until by September and October the riverfronts of the Chobe and Kwando-Linyanti have some of the most amazing densities of buffalo and (especially) elephants that you'll find anywhere in Africa.
The migrations of zebra
are somewhat more complex, and still the topic of research, but is seems that during the rains large herds of zebra congregate on Makgadikgadi Pans, forming an amazing spectacle (if you can find them). During the dry season these animals congregate in numbers beside the Boteti River, on the west of the game reserve.
Separate populations from the Okavango, Chobe and Linyanti areas move to more open areas of the Kalahari. Some of these groups always seem to pass through the sweet grass plains of the Savuti area around April-May, and often this coincides with their foaling season.Wildebeest
in the north of the country follow a similar pattern to the zebra, but those in the centre and south of the Kalahari are effectively now a separate population. It seems that numbers in the central area of the Kalahari have fluctuated wildly since records began; before the fences there was probably a big annual migration northeast in the dry season to Lake Xau – the nearest water point to the CKGR. Like hartebeest
in the central Kalahari, they certainly move around with the season, but the complexities of their current migration patterns are unclear.
A good guide can make animal tracks come alive, helping you to make sense of what you see in the bush. Showing you, for example, that cats' tracks have three lobes at the bottom, whereas dog and hyena tracks feature only two; pointing out the cheetah's claws, usually absent from other cat tracks; or the direction in which an elephant's walking from small scuff marks around its track. The more you learn, the more you'll enjoy about the bush.
Large areas of Botswana are still covered by relatively undisturbed natural vegetation, and hunting is not a significant factor for most of Botswana's 550 recorded species of birds. Thus, with a range of natural habitats, Botswana is a superb birding destination.
There are fairly clear distinctions between the birds that you're likely to find in areas of swamp or open water, those that frequent riverine forest, and those found in the drier areas. None are endemic, though several have very restricted distributions. These include the slaty egret, which is restricted to the Okavango, Linyanti and Chobe river systems, the brown firefinch, and the Natal nightjar.
The Okavango Delta is a particularly good place for birdwatching as the habitats change from dry, to flooded, to deep-water over very short distances.
In addition to its resident bird species, Botswana receives many migrants. In September and October the Palaearctic migrants appear (ie: those that come from the Northern Hemisphere – normally Europe), and they remain until around April or May. This is also the peak time to see the intra-African migrants, which come from further north in Africa.
The rains from December to around April see an explosion in the availability of most birds' food: seeds, fruits and insects. Hence this is the prime time for birds to nest, even if it is also the most difficult time to visit the more remote areas of the country.