Botswana Travel Guide
Botswana Travel Guide
The natural environment

Botswana Travel Guide


A great deal has been written about the conservation of animals in Africa; much of it is over-simplistic and intentionally emotive. As an informed visitor you are in the unique position of being able to see some of the issues at firsthand, and to appreciate the perspectives of some of the local people. So abandon your preconceptions, and start by realising how complex the issues are.

Here I shall try to outline a few ideas common to current thinking on conservation, and to many areas in the region. Only then will I frame them in the context of Botswana.

Being pragmatic: conservation and development

Firstly, conservation must be taken within its widest sense if it is to have meaning. Saving animals is of minimal use if the whole environment is degraded, so we must consider conserving whole areas and ecosystems, not just the odd isolated species.

Observe that land is regarded as an asset by most societies, in Africa as it is elsewhere. (The San are a notable exception in this regard.) To 'save' the land for the animals, and use it merely for the recreation of a few privileged foreign tourists, is a recipe for huge social problems – especially if the local people remain excluded from benefit and in poverty. Local people have hunted animals for food for centuries. They have always killed game that threatened them or ruined their crops. If we now try to protect animals in populated areas without addressing the concerns of the people, then our efforts will fail.

The only pragmatic way to conserve Africa's wild areas is to see the development of the local people, and the conservation of the ecosystems, as inter-linked goals.

In the long term, one will not work without the other. Conservation without development leads to resentful local people who will happily, and frequently, shoot, trap and kill animals. Development without conservation will simply repeat the mistakes that most developed countries have already made: it will lay waste a beautiful land and kill off its natural heritage. Look at the tiny areas of undisturbed natural vegetation that survive in the UK, the USA, or Japan. See how unsuccessful we in the Northern Hemisphere have been at long-term conservation over the past 500 years.

As an aside, the local people in Africa are sometimes wrongly accused of being the only agents of degradation. Many would like to see 'poachers' shot on sight, and slash-and-burn agriculture banned. But observe the importation of tropical hardwoods by the West to see the problems that our demands place on the natural environment in the developing world.

In conserving some of Africa's natural areas and assisting the development of her people, the international community has a vital role to play. It could effectively encourage African governments to practise sustainable long-term strategies, rather than grasping for the short-term fixes which politicians seem universally to prefer. But such solutions must have the backing of the people themselves, or they will fall apart when the foreign aid budgets eventually wane.

In practice, to get this backing from the local communities it is not enough for a conservation strategy to be compatible with development. Most rural Africans are more concerned about where they live, what they can eat, and how they will survive, than they are about the lives of small, obscure species of antelope that taste good when roasted.

To succeed in Africa, conservation must not only be compatible with development, it must actually promote it. Conservation efforts must also actively help the local people to improve their own standard of living. If that situation can be reached, then local communities can be mobilised behind long-term conservation initiatives.

Governments are the same. As the famous Zambian conservationist, Norman Carr, once commented, 'governments won't conserve an impala just because it is pretty'. But they will work to save it if they can see that it is worth more to them alive than dead.

The continent's best current strategies involve trying to find lucrative and sustainable ways to use the land. They then plough much of the revenue back into the surrounding local communities. Once the local communities see revenue from conservation being used to help them improve their lives – to build houses, clinics and schools, and to offer paid employment – then such schemes rapidly get their backing and support.

Carefully planned, sustainable tourism is one solution that is working effectively. For success, the local communities must see that the visitors pay because they want the wildlife. Thus, they reason, the existence of wildlife directly improves their income, and they will strive to conserve it.

It isn't enough for people to see that the wildlife helps the government to get richer; that won't dissuade a local hunter from shooting a duiker for dinner. However, if he is directly benefiting from visitors, who come to see the animals, then he has a vested interest in saving that duiker.

It matters little to the average rural African, or ultimately to the wildlife, whether these visitors come to shoot the wildlife with a camera or with a gun. The vital issue is whether or not the hunting is done on a sustainable basis (ie: only a few of the oldest animals are shot each year, so that the size of the animal population remains largely unaffected).

Photographers may claim the moral high-ground, but should remember that hunters pay far more for their privileges. Hunting operations generate large revenues from few guests, who demand minimal infrastructure and so cause little impact on the land. Photographic operations need more visitors to generate the same revenue, and so generally cause greater negative effects on the country.

In theory: high revenue, low volume

In the late 1980s Botswana's parks, and especially the Chobe Riverfront area and Moremi, were being badly over-used. Many visitors were self-contained South Africans who would arrive with all their food and kit. They bought little in Botswana except their cheap park entry tickets, and contributed little to the nation's economy.

In an effort to reduce numbers, and stave off serious environmental (and aesthetic) problems due to too many visitors, it was decided to increase the park fees by a factor of ten. This worked miraculously – reducing the number of visitors and their impact, but retaining the same level of revenue for the parks authorities.

At the time this was revolutionary, even though now it seems obvious. Thus Botswana's policy of 'high revenue, low volume' tourism was born. Most of Botswana's wild areas are expensive to maximise revenues and keep environments pristine – and they're the envy of Africa for having a good, working system that is delivering increasing revenues as well as many local development initiatives.

In practice

For the last 15 years this basic policy has been in place, and it's extended way beyond the national parks, and evolved to embrace virtually the whole of northern Botswana, going beyond the official national parks and game reserves

National parks and reserves
The national parks, like Chobe, and the game reserves, like Moremi, work on a simple system. Nobody lives in these (the San in the CKGR being the exception). Anyone can visit, provide they pay the fees. These are scaled to be cheapest for citizens of Botswana, reasonable for residents, and more costly for visitors.

Private concessions or reserves
Outside of the national parks and game reserves, northern Botswana has been divided up into a series of wildlife management areas (WMAs). Those in northwestern Botswana, in Ngamiland, are numbered NG1, NG2, up to NG51. These areas are normally referred to in Botswana as 'concessions' although in this guide I have used this term virtually interchangeably with the phrase 'private reserve' or simply just 'reserve.'

Within each of these the government, via the local 'land board', has defined who owns the wildlife, and what can be done with it. In some hunting is forbidden, in most limited (controlled and sustainable) hunting is allowed.

Community concessions
In most of these concessions, the approach taken centres around Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) – a modern phrase for a strategy which tries to reconcile conflicts over resources between the people and the wildlife in it's broadest sense.

CBNRM is based on the premise that the people living next to a resource are the ones best suited to protecting that resource – as they would lose most if that resource is lost, and gain most if it's managed well. There is also an ethical consideration:for example, the people that pay the costs of living near wildlife (destruction of crops, livestock and loss of human life) benefit from its conservation. Local people need to be involved in the decision-making process and need to benefit from the areas around them, and CBNRM tries to make this possible.

Thus in most of Botswana's concessions, the local communities now make decisions about how they are run, and they reap the rewards if they are run well and successfully.

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