The radio crackles to life. Our guide says a few words in Setswana, and the Range Rover kicks into high gear as the tires chew through the sandy two-track road. Within minutes, we take a hard turn off the two-track plowing through brush and swerving around termite mounds. Bouncing around wildly in the rear elevated seat, I catch glimpses of kites and vultures circling in the distance. It must be a kill, I think.
Moments later, I smell the unmistakable odor of eviscerated stomach contents, and spot a dark massive form lying lifeless on the ground – a male Cape buffalo. There’s only one species that can kill something this big, I think. Then I spot the male lion and recoil in my seat as the guide creeps the off-road vehicle within feet of him. This is too damn close, I think, but cautiously relax as our guide talks about the animal, and I can see the lion couldn’t care less about us. The big cat, one of two “Croc Boys,” according to our guide, is lying under a small tree trying to catch the miserably little shade it’s casting. The lion’s belly is bloated from too much food; he’s panting heavily, and there’s a massive scar across the length of his right thigh - a remnant of his encounter with a crocodile.
Welcome to Botswana! Arguably, Africa’s last true wilderness area and a premier destination for camera safaris. Since their independence in 1966, Botswana has grown to be a leading advocate for wildlife conservation, setting aside and protecting more than 25% of the country’s land mass for wildlife. Conservation-based, low-volume, high-cost camera safaris are their second largest economic industry behind diamonds. Botswana’s government, the Batswana people, along with private conservation-minded safari companies have built an eco-tourism industry rich with traditional culture, megafauna, apex predators and every other fauna and flora species large and small. The Big 5, Ugly 5, Little 5, Shy 5, Feathered 6 … they’re all here! A complete ecosystem for the nature-lover tourist to enjoy.
And enjoy we did. As much as we loved seeing the fauna and flora, it was the Batswana people that “sealed” the experience. They radiated strength, proudness of country and hope for the future. They clasped us in their protective wings, taught us the “bush” way, and shared their rich culture and traditions. Their whole heritage culture is built around nature and the intricate colors, patterns and sounds we saw/heard in the animals were well represented in the people’s dress, customs and language. Out in the bush, we were merely spectators, protected by the confines of a safari vehicle or the attentiveness of our armed guide. But in camp, observing and listening to traditional dance and song, we all became participants, the experience tugging on our hearts and strengthening our spirits.
Botswana, a Garden of Eden, with a progressive government that values their people, their traditional culture and their environment. Botswana’s future looks strong. Still, immersed in all of this optimism, my worries creep in. Elephant over-browsing was evident everywhere we visited. The last elephant stronghold in Africa, how much more pressure can Botswana take as elephants pour in from neighboring countries to escape human/animal conflicts? Poaching – Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks Anti-Poaching Unit is considered the best in Africa, and we saw evidence of their presence nearly every day. Their shoot-to-kill stance against poachers has been very successful deterring poachers. Will funds to support the Anti-Poaching Unit grow with the inevitable increase in poaching pressure? Ranching and agriculture pressures continue to mount on Botswana’s wilderness border boundaries. Will there always be resources to resolve the conflicts that arise between wild and domestic animals? What about human population growth? And maybe most important, what happens if Botswana’s next President in not the avid conservationist they enjoy today?
None the less, I find myself hopeful, thankful and envious of my Batswana peers. I could not help but draw an analogous comparison to my work in Wisconsin, and wonder what it would be like to work in a complete tallgrass prairie ecosystem with the full support of my people and government. An opportunity lost forever, but it’s fun to dream about.