The Chobe's original inhabitants were the Bushmen, followed by the Hambukushu, Bayei and Basubiya. The 1850s saw David Livingstone pass through the area, on his way to seeing the Victoria Falls, and a succession of big game hunters seeking trophies and ivory. It was first protected as a game reserve in 1961, and then proclaimed a National Park in 1968, which was none too late.
Despite its distant trophy-hunting past, the game density in some areas of the park remains remarkable, ensuring the park's continued popularity. Simply driving a few kilometres along the Chobe Riverfront in the dry season is demonstration enough, as you'll be forced to halt frequently to allow game to wander slowly across the road, or to watch herds coming down to drink from the river.
However, perhaps more than any of Botswana's parks, Chobe has felt the impact of tourism. In the 1980s, park fees were low and the few basic campsites were full. Rubbish became a problem, solitary game viewing was almost impossible and the animals became habituated to people. While Chobe has never been busy by East African standards, its three or four basic public campsites and simple network of game-viewing roads couldn't cope with so many visitors.
Fortunately, around 1987, the government started to implement a policy of 'high cost, low density' tourism. Park fees went up and the numbers of visitors dropped. The situation has now changed. With regular increases in these park fees the flood of visitors through the park has turned into more of a moderate flow. Once again, most of the park feels like a wilderness area. Even the 'honey pot' of the northern Chobe Riverfront area isn't quite as busy, though the proximity of Kasane's lodges and campsites ensure that it's never going to be that quiet either.Geography
The geography of Chobe National Park and adjacent Forest Reserve, and indeed most of northern Botswana, is one based on an undulating plain of Kalahari sand that slopes very slightly from the northwest down to the southeast. Its altitude varies from about 950m at Linyanti, to around 930m at Ihaha and 942m at Savuti. In many ways its most defining feature is its northwest boundary: the Chobe-Linyanti river system.
On the ground, Chobe's geographical features are subtle rather than striking. Various vegetated sand dunes and sand ridges occur, including the large Magwikhwe Sand Ridge. Natural pans are dotted throughout the park, reaching their highest densities around the Nogatsaa and Tchinga areas, and also the Zweizwe area east of Savuti. Only occasional rounded hills break the Kalahari's flatness.
Whilst the region is bounded by great rivers, within this area there are only dry, or at least very seasonal, watercourses. The Savuti Channel is the most famous of these – and that did flow, on and off, until 1982. Geology
Here it's enough to note that by around three million years ago the Kalahari's longitudinal dunes had formed, channelling rivers south and east into the Limpopo. Then, around two million years ago, a tectonic shift blocked this drainage, leaving the rivers feeding a super-lake in the heart of Botswana – Lake Makgadikgadi. Geologists think that the level of this fluctuated in time, but that it reached as far as the Savuti area. Compelling evidence for this are the great sand-ridges in the area, and the presence of smooth, wave-washed pebbles and boulders – for example those found on the southern side of the Gcoha Hills.Flora and fauna
Trying to describe Chobe as a whole without any comment or sub-divisions would be very misleading. Unlike some of Africa's national parks, Chobe is best considered as a handful of totally different areas. Each with a different feel, slightly different vegetation and distinct populations of animals.
Some of the species which are found throughout the park. Flora
In general, across the whole park you'll find many similarities. Near any of the permanent rivers the vegetation is varied, with a large number of tree and bush species. It's classic riparian forest – as occurs throughout southern Africa.
Away from water, Chobe has fairly thick and sometimes thorny bush with relatively few open areas. Much of this is Kalahari sandveld, often with a high proportion of acacias and species that love deep sand, like the silver terminalia (Terminalia sericea
). Some of Chobe, especially in the south, is covered with mopane woodland, containing almost exclusively Colophospermum mopane
The main exceptions to this are a few areas of (geologically) recent alluvial deposits, like Savuti Marsh, which look totally different. Here you'll find the skeletons of various acacias and leadwoods (Combretum imberbe
) on open plains covered in couch grass (Cynodon dactylon
) – the latter being the principal attraction for zebra to the area.Animals
Most of Chobe's wildlife is found across the whole park. Occasional elephants and buffalo are seen everywhere, but the large herds generally follow a highly seasonal pattern of migrations. These are principally dictated by the availability of water.
As the dry season progresses, all the small clay pans in the bush (and particularly the mopane woodlands) dry up. Then the elephants and buffalo start to form larger herds and migrate to the permanent waters of the Chobe and Linyanti rivers. These gather in their thousands by the rivers, having come from as far away as Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. Then, as soon as it rains and the small pans in the bush start to fill with rainwater, the animals move away again and disperse.
Many of the parks animals will follow a smaller-scale, less noticeable version of this type of seasonal migration to the water, and this is what makes the game viewing in Chobe so remarkable towards the middle and end of the dry season.
At any time of year, Chobe's big game includes blue wildebeest, Burchell's zebra, impala, kudu, tssesebe, giraffe, impala, common duiker, steenbok, warthog, baboon and vervet monkey throughout the park. Eland, sable and roan antelope also range across the park – but are relatively scarce, just as they are elsewhere in southern Africa.
Lion and spotted hyena are very common, and are generally the dominant predators, whilst leopard, cheetah and wild dog all occur, though are seen much less frequently. Both side-striped and black-backed jackal are present – though the former are found more in the north of the park, and the latter in the south. Brown hyena probably occur, though rarely, in the drier parts of the south – though they don't seem to co-exist happily with a high density of lion or spotted hyena.
Cape and bat-eared fox are found here, though again the Cape fox prefers the drier south. I once had a particularly good sighting of a whole family of bat-eared foxes in the middle of the open plains on Savuti Marsh, early in the morning on a cold September day. There are a variety of mongooses found here; the most often seen of these are probably the banded and dwarf species – both of which are social, and very entertaining to watch.
Serval, caracal, aardwolf and aardvark are found all over the park, though are only occasionally seen due to their largely nocturnal habits. Pangolin are found here too, though they're very rarely seen.
If you have the chance to take any night drives in areas adjoining the park (no night drives are allowed inside the park) then you've a good chance to spot scrub hares, spring hares, lesser bushbabies, porcupines, genets (small-spotted and large-spotted), civets, African wild cats and honey badgers.
Though white and black rhino would occur here naturally, as they should throughout northern Botswana, they have all been wiped out through poaching. There have been occasional reports of individual animals living in the most inaccessible corners of the region... but we are sure that that a viable breeding population doesn't exist here.
In October 2001, white rhino were finally re-introduced into Mombo area, on Chief's Island in the Moremi Game Reserve. It's hoped that a number of black rhino will shortly follow. If these thrive and breed, then perhaps, eventually, we'll see rhino in Chobe once again – given continued CITES protection and the continuation of a very effective anti-poaching regime.Birdlife
Over 450 species of birds have been seen in Chobe – too many to even try to list here. Thus I'll cover the birding highlights in the separate sections concerning the specific areas within the park. Note that the summer migrants generally arrive around October and leave again in March.