Everyone in our van gasped when the vehicle in front of us pulled a dead leopard out of their trunk at the veterinary check point in Botswana. We immediately assumed they were poachers, but our guide assured us that if they were poachers they would have left their kill deep in the bush to be picked up in the cover of darkness. He thought maybe they hit it while driving, an unfortunate accident, and worse, the only leopard we had seen so far on our trip.
We had left Zambia to head to Kasane, a small village in Botswana at the edge of Chobe National Park. Botswana, and Chobe National Park specifically, is famous for having not only great numbers of elephants, but also the largest elephants on the planet. During the winter dry season, these elephants concentrate at sources of water such as the Chobe River or the Okavango Delta. Many of the African nations that are home to elephants lost great numbers, if not their entire population, by the end of the 1980s due to poaching. Botswana is the only country that actually saw an increase in the number of their elephants during that time, and they have more elephants today than recorded numbers from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
As we enter the gates of Chobe National Park, it initially looks very dry, all sand and scrubby brush, like many of the other places we have visited. At the crest of our first hill the banks of the Chobe River come into view, and hundreds upon hundreds of elephants are visible, their herds stretching towards the horizon. Impala feed on the grasses at the water’s edge, hippos graze amidst water lilies, and warthogs drink at the elephants’ feet. Water birds such as stork and kingfisher blanket the river bank, paying no attention to the crocodiles sunning themselves nearby. As baboons play on the beach in front of our truck, we are astonished to see such a large number of animals in one place.
The elephants quickly steal the show as we come across a group bathing in the mud, complete with a tiny baby covered from head to tail. When they have had their fill flopping and rolling and flinging mud at each other, they stand behind the matriarch and her new baby and cross the river in a perfectly straight line. One elephant is too short for the deep water, and rides piggy-back on a second elephant using her trunk as a snorkel.
As the elephants trek deeper into the watershed, giraffe approach the river and cautiously bend down for a drink. Soon more giraffe join to feed, grinding their jaws from side to side to break down the thorny acacia branches they love. We leave our vehicle to view Chobe from the water, taking a river safari. Hippos that were feeding in the distance are our first target, and we come across two that are draped in small water lilies, contently feeding on water grasses in the sun. As we cruise with a new guide, we learn a little about the challenges faced by Botswana when establishing Chobe National Park, which shares a border with Namibia.
The Chobe River draws a clear line between what is now Botswana and Namibia, but the river itself is filled with small islands that have become disputed territory between the two countries. Botswana claimed these islands as part of Chobe National Park, which is a huge draw for tourists visiting the country. Namibia uses the land along the Chobe for farming, and claimed the islands were part of their farmland needed to raise cattle and herds of goats. The two countries could not come to an agreement, and eventually their dispute went to The International Court in The Hague, and the territory was awarded to Botswana. Now, when cruising the Chobe River, the national flag of Botswana can be seen flying over these small parcels of land.
In Botswana, the wild animals are not contained by fences within the national parks, as they are in South Africa. While this allows for a more natural migration of the wildlife, it also can make it more difficult to contain diseases that may spread from wild buffalo to cattle. On our river safari, we see buffalo with huge disfiguring tumors, and our guide tells us of problems with tuberculosis, anthrax, and foot and mouth disease in both wild and domesticated cattle populations. On our trip so far, we have passed through veterinary check points while on the road, where shoes are disinfected and no trucks containing live cattle or products from cattle are permitted to pass. It is one example of how conflicts can arise between the people and wildlife of southern Africa. Tomorrow we will leave the Chobe area to head deep into the Kalahari Desert, and learn more about how people have been able to survive in this extreme environment.