In Bwabwata, I often don’t know where to look, or point my camera. There is so much going on. Out on the floodplains, in the water, in the woodlands, in the sky. Elephant and eagles, buffalo by the hundreds, kingfishers, crocodile, a shy sable, a rare otter … and that’s just at a glance. Time and careful observation reveal so much more. The core areas of Bwabwata are an intense experience of wild Africa.
Bwabwata is an unlikely park. It’s such a long, narrow strip of land. Only 32 kilometres between the Angolan and Botswana borders, yet 200 kilometres from the Okavango to the Kwando. It is a strip of colonial history that became a park by default. Yet today it offers some of Namibia’s greatest wildlife experiences.
The Okavango and Kwando rivers are its lifelines. They are sister rivers, originating in the highlands of Angola and relinquishing their waters to the thirsty sands of the Kalahari. They fringe the dry woodland core of the park with an abundance of plant and animal life.
The mantle of KAZA – the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area – is vital to the protection of Bwabwata’s wealth. Neither the pockets of riverfront nor the narrow strip of woodland in Namibia would offer enough space for elephant, lion, wild dog or other species if the protected landscape did not extend far beyond Namibia’s borders into KAZA.
The relationship between people and their environment is also vital here. Burgeoning settlements press against the park’s boundaries east and west. People live with their livestock in the multiple-use area in the centre of the park. Most are subsistence farmers. Wildlife must generate benefits and have a meaning in people’s lives if it is to survive in and around Bwabwata.
BWABWATA TRAVEL TIPS
WHEN TO BE THERE:
• Bwabwata is open all year, but travel is most comfortable in the dry season
• During the wet season, most rain falls in the afternoons in brief thundershowers
• Early mornings & late afternoons are best for game viewing
• Temperatures can be very high in the hottest months
WHAT TO DO:
• The riverfront offers most game sightings, especially in the dry season
• Spend time on game-viewing platforms; they provide excellent wildlife viewing
• Birding is superb, especially along the rivers
• Go on a slow scenic woodland drive along back roads
WHAT TO REMEMBER:
• Be careful around all wildlife; take special care around elephant herds with calves
• 4x4 is required in most areas due to deep sand; some tracks are boggy in the wet season
• To curb ivory poaching, the park is constantly patrolled by park staff & military/police
• Bwabwata is in a malaria area; take necessary precautions
On the Kwando River, perfectly situated to visit the Nkasa Rupara (Mamili) & Mudumu Reserves.
Nambwa Tented Lodge is within the heart of KAZA and the only lodge uniquely situated inside the Bwabwata National Park
The Zambezi Region – Namibia’s Best Kept Secret Along the banks of the majestic Kwando River lies a thatched kingdom. Views stretch across the marshlands of the Bwabwata National Park, as a xylophone of sounds lead the sun to the western horizon and dancing hippos welcome it at dawn. Namushasha River Lodge is home to abundance. The thatch-roofed chalets peak out from between the thick trees, with the slow flow of the Kwando below. Game drives in the Bwabwata National Park where elephant, hippo, and buffalo reside. Or view the wild wonders from the river with a scenic cruise. Discover the wealth the river holds.
The abundance of the Kwando River flows into this intimate setting. Anchored in its own channel along the river, this floating Villa offers an escape like no other. Guests are ferried to the location from Namushasha River Lodge, via a private game drive through the Bwabwata National Park. The entire Villa is equipped to cater to every need. With a selection of snacks, pastries, condiments and more, as well as a wide range of wine, whiskeys and gins – guests will have everything they need. As the sun sets, a crackling fire dances in the fire pit on the terrace. Every evening is spent in blissful peace as your only company is the abundant wildlife moving along the banks of the river.
Situated close to the Mahangu Park in west Caprivi - this is an excellent stop-over between Namibia, Maun (in Botswana) and the Victoria Falls.
A rustic river side campsite and lodge offering excellent value for money. A lively bar and restaurant ensures this appeals to the younger or more socially inclined traveller.
Close to the Popa Falls (a series of rapids on the Kavango River), this rest camp was renovated in 2013
Sharwimbo River Camp is elevated high on the banks of the Kwando river
Settled along the banks of the Kwando River, each tented unit can sleep four people in comfortable beds. With en suite bathroom and a fully equipped kitchen, this is an iconic way to experience the Zambezi Region. Elephants, hippos and a myriad of bird species will keep you company amongst waterlilies and the African bush. Spend your evenings around a campfire with the sounds of the Kwando to keep you company. Or visit the lodge a short walk away to enjoy a dining experience of plunge in the pool. In addition, game drives and boat cruises are also available to guests – unless they wish to experience the mighty Bwabwata as a self-drive experience.
Experience the waterworld of the Zambezi River on a romantic boat trip
Capture the colours of the Zambezi River bird life on a relaxing boat cruise.
Join a guided fishing trip and catch species such as catfish, tilapia, nembwe and tigerfish.
Discover the beauty of the Zambezi region on foot
Fulvous ducks are found at inland water bodies.
The Angola free-tailed bat roost in crevices, caves, attics and expansion joints in bridges.
Butterfly bats are associated with open plant vegetation, semi-arid regions and riverine forests.
Commerson's leaf-nosed bat is the largest insectivorous bat in southern Africa.
The Damara woolly bat is recognized by it's soft, woolly fur that grows away from the body as the paler tips curl up and give it a 'grizzly appearance'.
Darling's horseshoe bat are competent and active hunters due to their broader wings and superior echolocation abilities.
The French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire collected this species in Egypt during the Napoleonic wars.
The hairy slit-faced bat is a fragile creature and is characterized by 3-lobed upper incisors.
The lesser woolly bat is a smaller version of the Damara woolly bat.
Mauritian tomb bats can be identified by their elongated face with a pointed muzzle and short, broad ears.
A distinguishing feature of the pale free-tailed bat is the pale colouration of the fur.
Serotine bats roost in small groups in any nook or cranny of buildings, rocks and trees.
As populations of Rüppells bat are small in southern Africa, they are not often seen and considered rare.
This small bat is known to emerge at dusk.
Peter's epauletted bat are mostly found where indigenous fruit-bearing trees grow in particular fig-trees.
Spur-winged goose can be found with comb ducks and at times shelducks.
Comb ducks prefer marsh and temporary pans in woodland, woodland-fringed lagoon of flood plains.
The African Pygmy goose prefer a well-vegetated freshwater wetlands habitat.
Red-billed teals inhabit most inland wetlands whether man-made or natural usually in pairs or small groups.
Hottentot teals are found in a permanent and semi-permanent shallow and freshwater wetlands.
The sharptooth catfish is unique in that it can live in almost any habitat, but it prefers floodplains, large slow moving rivers, lakes and dams.
Matambo Singwangwa embodies the complexity of conservation and local communities in Namibia’s far northeast. Born in Bwabwata, he spent his childhood in the bush, growing into the hunter-gatherer life of his Baraquena parents. As a teenager, he was forced to join the South African army. With independence, he was employed by Namibia’s fledgeling environmental ministry and could apply his natural knowledge and skills in positive ways. Matambo has worked tirelessly to curb poaching, promote conservation and rebuild wildlife populations. He’s still out in the field for MET today, fighting for conservation.
The Namibian Kalahari is mostly devoid of hills, even rocks. The spectacular rock art and related archaeology found across much of the western half of the country is absent here. As a result, less archaeological work has been done in the Kalahari. Although people and their prehistoric relatives are likely to have utilised the higher-yielding northern Kalahari – and especially its perennial rivers – more than the country’s arid west, their relics are patchy. The little evidence that has been uncovered confirms tens of thousands of years of human presence here, and a growing trade in beads and other goods for at least half a millennium.
The oral history of the area goes back hundreds of years and portrays the immigration from the north of various groups speaking Bantu languages. Perpetual power struggles ensued, dominated by successive kingdoms of the Kololo and Lozi from the 1600s until well into the early twentieth century. By this time, the Tswana Empire was encroaching from the south. The regency of the powerful regimes affected all other groups, including the Kwangali, Mbunza, Shambyu, Gciriku and Mbukushu from the Okavango and the Subiya, Fwe and Yeyi living between the Kwando and Zambezi rivers. SiLozi became the lingua franca of the region during the last Lozi reign, and remains the most widespread language besides English in the Zambezi Region today.
The San, the earliest known inhabitants of the northern Kalahari, were displaced by the immigration of Bantu communities. A San group called the Khwe made the land between the Okavango and Kwando their realm. The area thus became known as the ‘Hukweveld’. Like other San communities, the Khwe are known by various names including Kxoé, Barrakwenge and Baraquena.
The Caprivi Strip became a perpetual frontier the day its peculiar borders were created. Colonial borders generally ignored indigenous land distribution and use, but few are more striking in their disregard for anything that might have existed before than the parallel lines drawn between the Okavango and Kwando rivers to give German South West Africa a wedge into the African interior, a potential thoroughfare to East Africa and access to the mighty Zambezi River.
The strip was defined through two treaties, one between Germany and Portugal (1886) to delineate the border with Angola, and the other between Britain and Germany (1890) to confirm the border with British Bechuanaland. Both borders remained disputed during the German colonial period, due mainly to a lack of on-the-ground knowledge of the area. They were finalised after World War I, when South Africa was given a mandate by the United Nations to administer South West Africa. The area is still widely referred to as the Caprivi, although today it encompasses the Zambezi Region and a part of the Kavango East Region.
During the ‘scramble for Africa’ by European powers, the desert lands between the Kunene and Orange rivers were amongst the last to be claimed, and the swamps of the Okavango, Kwando and Zambezi were amongst the final reaches to be explored. These areas were difficult to traverse, infested with tsetse fly and plagued with malaria. The early explorers who penetrated here struggled through endless swamps and suffered from regular bouts of fever.
David Livingstone, the first European known to have reached what is today the Zambezi Region, explored the area in the early 1850s. Karl Johan Andersson, searching for the source of the Kunene River, was the first European to reach, and name, the Okavango in 1859. Andersson was apparently also the first to use the term South West Africa.
The Caprivi was generally neglected by both the German and South African governments – until apartheid South Africa turned the strip into the main front in its struggle to deny Namibia independence. Over a period of several decades from the mid-1930s, West Caprivi was proclaimed a livestock-free area, then a game park and finally a restricted military zone. From the 1970s, half a dozen military bases were created between the Okavango and Kwando, and further to the east.
The heavy military presence, and the armed conflict that ensued, had a massive impact on people and the environment. The Khwe, as well as several thousand !Xun (also called !Kung) who fled here in the 1970s during Angola’s civil war, were allowed to stay in the strip for strategic reasons. Many men were recruited into the South African army for their skills as trackers and scouts. The dependency that developed left the San disempowered minorities. Since independence, inclusive policies have enabled the Khwe to benefit from the park and its resources; they still make up the majority of residents living in Bwabwata today, while most !Xun have left.
￼The physical scars of Namibia’s struggle for independence are healing. Wildlife has returned, and remnants of the military occupation slowly crumble into the vegetation. Yet the people of today’s Zambezi Region continue to strive for an own identity. In 1999, an uncoordinated attempt by a group called the Caprivi Liberation Movement to secede the area as an independent republic was quashed by the Namibian government. The region is now receiving significant development attention, but at the furthest extremity from the Namibian capital, some people still feel disenfranchised by history.
I drove through Caprivi for the first time soon after Namibia’s independence. I’d worked a short stint as an assistant designer for the United Nations Transition Assistance Group, UNTAG, and had gained insights into Namibia’s precarious path to nationhood. I was using my first earnings to show friends ‘my new country’. ‘The Strip’ had the atmosphere of a military frontier; no longer a war zone, exactly, but still raw from decades of conflict and suppression. The recently proclaimed national parks were unknown. I don’t remember seeing notable wildlife until we crossed into the Chobe National Park in Botswana.
To see a female bushbuck and her calf feeding quietly amongst the toppled gravestones of a war cemetery in Bwabwata today is a strangely eerie sight, yet one that is symbolic of regeneration – a healing of scars. Healthy game numbers and tranquil animals are certainly an amazing change from the turmoil of earlier times.
West Caprivi was recognised by the South African administration as the traditional land of the Khwe in the 1930s, but was declared a livestock-free zone in 1937. Only the Khwe were considered eligible residents and Mbukushu groups that had settled on the west bank of the Kwando were relocated with their livestock in 1940. In 1964, the infamous Odendaal Commission, created to design separate homelands for all non-White ethnic groups in Namibia, recommended that the West Caprivi should become a designated homeland for the Khwe.
The administration did not follow Odendaal’s suggestion, having already proclaimed the area as the West Caprivi Nature Park in 1963. This was instead upgraded to the status of Caprivi Game Park in 1968. However, recommendations of a 1966 ecological survey to resettle all park residents and create an exclusive conservation area were not implemented either.
In light of the political climate of the time, the suggestion that the park was created mainly to provide apartheid-era South Africa with a broad military front against perceived threats seems well founded. The Angolan liberation war had begun in 1962, independence was imminent for Botswana and for Zambia, and Namibia’s own struggle for sovereignty was gaining momentum. By the early 1970s, Namibia’s endeavours had turned into an armed conflict and the strip became a restricted military zone dotted with army bases.
Staff of the Department of Nature Conservation were excluded from Caprivi Game Park and conservation responsibilities were taken on by the army. The general discord that followed included heavy poaching. The South African army was later shown to have been involved in dealing with ivory and rhino horn, while locals poached to sell meat or supply their own households.
To conservationists, the importance of conserving the Okavango riverfront as vital wildlife habitat had become evident in the early 1980s, and the Department of Nature Conservation began negotiations with the Administration for Kavango, leading to a memorandum of agreement in 1982 and the proclamation of the Mahango and Popa Falls game parks in ’89.
After independence, a more inclusive approach to conservation motivated a comprehensive socio-ecological survey of West Caprivi, completed in 1994. Extensive consultation with local people during the survey laid the groundwork for community involvement in protected areas, and Namibia’s community conservation approaches in general. The survey report made a variety of recommendations, such as zoning the park for different uses to enable the Khwe, Mbukushu and !Xun to continue living in the park – and to benefit from its resources through the use of veld foods and income generated from conservation-hunting concessions.
The survey also highlighted the pressing need to conserve what was seen as one of the most important conservation areas in Namibia, then known as the Golden Triangle – the wedge of land between the Caprivi Game Park and the Kwando River, which is part of today’s Kwando Core Area.
In line with the registration of numerous conservancies in Caprivi and elsewhere around Namibia, the people living in the Caprivi Game Park formed the Kyaramacan Association in 2005 to represent their interests through a similar structure to communal conservancies. The association was officially recognised by the MET the following year.
An evaluation of the coverage of state-protected areas around Namibia at the turn of the millennium motivated plans to redefine the status and cover of some of the country’s parks. Including many of the recommendations of the 1994 survey report, Bwabwata National Park was proclaimed in 2007 and encompassed both the Mahango Game Park and the Golden Triangle.
The return of wildlife to the park was boosted by translocations of small numbers of key species. Now a multitude of wildlife can once again be seen along the rivers and floodplains, and in the adjacent woodlands of Bwabwata.
Bwabwata is in many ways a model park, where modern, inclusive conservation approaches seek to balance the needs of rural communities with those of the environment. The wildlife has returned, habitats are being restored and park residents are reaping some of the benefits. Yet the balance is a precarious one. Escalating ivory poaching has had an impact on Bwabwata, motivating the government to install a semi-permanent police and military presence in the park. This has restricted the freedom of movement of residents – and of visitors – but has curtailed the poaching.
Conservation of a complex park such as Bwabwata has numerous facets, which can be hard for visitors to realise. The thin, long park falls into two administrative regions, Kavango East and Zambezi. It is dissected by a national road that connects the regional capitals Rundu and Katima Mulilo. It is bordered by different nations north and south. It has thousands of people living in the middle and more on either side … seemingly a recipe for some of the greatest conservation challenges any park can face.
The combination of the Zambezi Region’s large elephant population and its location wedged between four countries turn it into a prime target for poaching and trafficking. As the illegal ivory trade escalates across Africa, impacts on Bwabwata are inevitable, but proactive law enforcement at various levels is reaping results. Constant police and military surveillance might not be ideal for tourism, but it is reducing the impacts of poaching.
Around 5,500 people live in the multiple-use area of Bwabwata, with Mushashane and Mutc’iku along the Okavango, Omega I and Chetto in the centre of the park and Omega III and Mashambo near the Kwando Core Area being the main settlements. Khwe comprise more than three-quarters of the population. Mbukushu and a few !Xun make up the remainder, although a growing influx of settlers from west of the park is changing these population dynamics. The multiple-use area makes up about 70 per cent of the park.
The interests of most of these residents are represented through the Kyaramacan Association. A joint technical committee advises on development of settlements and infrastructure, and on livestock management and other issues. Although their movements within the park are currently restricted, people generally have a variety of rights and benefits from the park. The use of local plant resources and veld food forms an important component. The two conservation-hunting concessions in the park are amongst the best hunting areas in the country and the benefits they generate are significant.
These conservation merits are vital in offsetting the costs of living in the park for the people, such as limited access to agricultural land, impacts on fields by large herbivores and on livestock by predators – and an occasional threat to human life from a dangerous wild animal.
That wildlife populations have been effectively rebuilt in such a problematic park is proof of what can be achieved through innovative conservation approaches. Early European explorers, while recording abundant game in what are now Bwabwata and the eastern Zambezi Region, already noted that it was in decline.
Elephants were quickly decimated and displaced by ivory hunters, and the cumbersome white rhino was the first large animal to disappear entirely from the region by the late 1800s. The smaller, more skittish black rhino survived for another century and a half in the woodlands of Bwabwata. It was still reported as common along the Kwando in the 1960s and rumours of sightings persisted into the early 1990s. Both rhinos are now locally extinct in northeastern Namibia and, unless real solutions to the rhino crisis can be found, are unlikely to be returned.
Oribi, a small antelope similar to the steenbok, were recorded in Bwabwata in the 1960s and were still present in Mahango and probably along some parts of the Kwando into the ‘80s, but are now considered locally extinct. Besides rhinos, they are the only larger wildlife that have not returned to the area.
Crocodiles were reported as wiped out along the Kwando and rare in the Okavango by the mid-1960s, but are now common again in the protected stretches of both rivers. Sable were at one stage locally extinct in Mahango, but have been reintroduced. An exchange of wildlife with Botswana in 2008 brought waterbuck and tsessebe to Mahango and black rhino from Etosha to Botswana.
Today Bwabwata is the most important park for the protection of Namibia’s elephant population. Over a third of the 22,000 elephants estimated for Namibia roam across the park. Bwabwata is similarly important for the conservation of many other species, with wild dog, sable, tsessebe and roan foremost amongst them.
The value of Bwabwata’s birdlife is recognised through the designation of the Bwabwata–Okavango Ramsar Site, and Mahango is additionally listed as an internationally Important Bird and Biodiversity Area.
Effective fire management is crucial for the long-term conservation of Bwabwata’s woodlands. Fires are set by people to clear vegetation prior to the planting season each year. They are rarely controlled and regularly burn large parts of the park. This has a big impact on its vegetation, especially on large old trees that are being slowly killed by an annual succession of fire scars.
The crocodile is one of Africa’s primeval beasts of terror. The leviathan of the deep, exploding from murky waters to snatch an unwary woman doing her washing in a river, or a cow from the midst of a drinking herd – to then disappear with its prey like only aquatic animals can … Advanced remote tracking technology and genetic analyses are now revealing many interesting facets of the life of crocodiles, the largest reptiles inhabiting our planet. That they have existed mostly unchanged for millions of years while their relatives, the dinosaurs, went extinct is testimony to their great resilience.
The first scientific inventory of the fauna and flora of West Caprivi was published in 1966, soon after its proclamation as a nature park. Oribi were still found in the park then, and puku (a close relative of lechwe) were considered to be present along the Kwando on the basis of known populations in southeastern Angola and along the Chobe River.
The socio-ecological survey done in 1994 built on a variety of previous research, but importantly included the needs of local people in a much more comprehensive way and thereby laid the foundation for today’s park structure. The people living in the park have also been the focus of dedicated research. Papers published on their pre-independence history and current living conditions show that the San remain a disempowered minority in Namibia.
Understanding the movement of wildlife is an important aspect of modern conservation. The MET, in collaboration with local and international scientists, is tracking a variety of Bwabwata’s large animals, including elephant, buffalo, lion, spotted hyaena, wild dog and crocodile.
The work highlights several aspects: large wildlife needs much more room to roam than Bwabwata offers; human activities, settlement patterns and infrastructure have a big impact on animal movements; and human–wildlife conflict is a critical conservation issue.
Elephants show the widest wanderings into neighbouring areas and countries, followed by wild dogs. Buffalo movements tend to be more limited, and lions mostly stay within protected areas and away from people, although young males will disperse over huge areas.
Aerial censuses using drones to take high resolution photos found very healthy crocodile populations in both the Kwando and Okavango, with the greatest densities within the park. Remote tracking of crocodiles shows that they also move over surprising distances – 40 kilometres in one case. Genetic samples from Bwabwata crocodiles indicate an evolutionary divergence between the populations of the Okavango–Kwando–Zambezi and those of the Kunene in the west.
A recent survey of Bwabwata’s wild dogs shows that the park has a healthy and stable population across it. Road kills were identified as a major cause of mortality in the park.
Other scientific work in Bwabwata includes regular game counts, and further research on diverse aspects of mammals, fish and birdlife.
Glistening in the moonlight, its wet skin turned black, an elephant crosses the Linyanti Channel and heads northwest. Before sunrise it is skirting villages, and raids a crop field in passing. It rests in the tranquillity of the Mudumu Mulapo and later crosses the Kwando River into the woodlands of Bwabwata. By nightfall it has walked over a hundred kilometres. That the bull has crossed international borders, passed through three national parks and several conservancies has limited meaning for it – as long as wildlife corridors remain open and conflicts with farmers don’t lead to drastic actions.
Since Namibia’s independence, a healthier balance than had previously existed was created between indigenous wildlife and introduced agriculture. Yet, the perpetual contest between farming and conservation continues to affect Bwabwata – and all of Namibia – in many ways.
Livestock diseases are one of the biggest threats to the agricultural industry, as disease prevalence can prohibit meat exports to Europe and other parts of the world. In response to outbreaks of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, existing fences along the Namibia–Botswana border were fortified in the mid-1990s; only about 30 kilometres were left unfenced west of the Kwando River. Away from the riverfront, the Mahango Core Area has been almost completely fenced to stop the movement of buffalo into agricultural areas – and to reduce human–wildlife conflict, the other disharmony between farming and conservation.
Conflicts on the fringes of the park created by elephants and other herbivores that raid fields and gardens, and lions, leopards, cheetahs, spotted hyaenas, wild dogs and crocodiles that kill livestock, pose a constant threat to the conservation of these species. Conflict is, however, actively mitigated by conservancies. Fencing of strategic croplands that leaves corridors open for wildlife movement, the use of chilli as an elephant deterrent, crocodile fences that create safe river access for people and livestock, and monitoring of lions and other predators are important measures promoted by conservancies.
The conservancies that adjoin the Kwando Core Area help to ensure viable wildlife habitat along the Kwando. In combination with the Mudumu and Nkasa Rupara parks, the conservancies cover almost the entire eastern riverfront. Community forests overlap with the conservancies and promote the sustainable use of plant resources. The nearby state forest is another important wildlife habitat.
Bwabwata is part of the Mudumu North Complex, which encourages joint activities between the MET and conservancies, such as joint patrols, game counts, and fire management. In this collaboration, the Kyaramacan Association functions like a conservancy.
Beyond the narrow Namibian wedge that is Bwabwata, KAZA creates an immense wildlife landscape that enables international connectivity.
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