Nature has no borders to separate one part of the ecosystem from another. Thus, man-made political boundaries must not divide expanses of flora and fauna in Africa.

It is this doctrine that drives South African conservationist, National Geographic Explorer, founder of the Cape Parrot Project and Executive Chairman of the Wild Bird Trust, Dr Steve Boyes, to dedicate his life to preserving Africa’s wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them through innovative and integrative methods.

In 2015, Steve launched what has become the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project to support the establishment of community-based systems of protection based on detailed, repeatable ecological surveys and long-term environmental monitoring systems spanning the Okavango Basin in Angola, Namibia and Botswana.

The Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site, sustains robust populations of some of the world’s most endangered large mammals such as cheetah, white and black rhinoceros, African wild dog and lion, all adapted to living in this wetland system. The Okavango Delta, Africa’s largest remaining wetland wilderness, is further recognised as an Important bird area, harbouring 24 species of globally threatened birds, including among others, six species of vulture.

Navigating territorial hippos and active minefields, Boyes and a team of scientists have been exploring and monitoring most of the rivers of the Okavango Basin to help identify threats and conservation opportunities.

Through the annual Wetland Bird Survey – which is a checkup on the Okavango Delta’s health and heartbeat – they have been surveying and collecting scientific data on the Delta system to better understand the threats facing this important ecosystem and to help form solutions to the ongoing and emerging threats facing the landscape and wildlife in the Okavango. The 2023 annual Delta crossing will start on 1 August in Botswana.

In July 2023 Boyes addressed the annual Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) Conference for GIS users in San Diego, California, sharing his work doing detailed scientific surveys in the Okavango Basin, in the hope of protecting this enormous, fragile wilderness.

“Since 2015, we have scientifically surveyed all major rivers in this area. We have explored several channels and created 24 socio-economic surveys, on vehicles, motor bikes and on foot.

‘We have found new populations of endangered species like cheetah, wild dog, hyena and lion. This is also the most comprehensive, detailed, vegetation classification for the basin. We can now look at potential wildlife corridors, better contextualized by these new and endangered species, and support integrated management planning for the first time.”

Referring to Angola, Boyes said: “Historically, there was remote inaccessibility, frozen in time by 27 years of civil war. Africa’s largest tank battle since WW2 was fought here.”

And commenting on the expeditions that tracked the great rivers of the Okavango Basin from source to sand, he said: ”Living in the maps was proving to be rather difficult, but we persevered, establishing the most comprehensive, detailed, hydrological river baselines ever undertaken. We uploaded photographs taken every 30 seconds to create interactive 360 views of rivers we explored.”

The focus right now is protecting the Angolan Highlands Water Tower (AHWT) which Boyes and his colleagues have mapped.

Due to the lack of permanent snow and ice, global maps typically portray Africa as having no water towers. But Angola is a source of many major rivers in southern Africa and is referred to as the “water tower” of the region; its highlands store large quantities of freshwater, which flow hundreds of kilometres downstream, eventually feeding people, farms, and nature in seven countries: Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Namibia and Botswana.

The AHWT is the southern source of the Congo Basin, the western source of the Zambezi Basin, and the sole water source of the Okavango Basin and Okavango Delta. Approximately 95% of the water that flows into the Okavango Delta in Botswana originates from precipitation in the Angolan highlands. While the Okavango Delta is formally protected by Botswana and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the newly defined AHWT lacks any such protections.

“Defining the Angolan Highlands Water Tower and quantifying its contributions to rivers downstream, is an important step toward conservation for this critical freshwater resource,” says Dr Mauro Lourenco, Geospatial Ecologist and data analyst for the Wild Bird Trust.

“Africa’s water towers have been overlooked by science due to water towers typically requiring permanent snow or ice cover.

“Angola, like many African countries, is an emerging economy with a rapidly growing population and increasing demand on freshwater resources. We need to continue to study and understand the functioning of the AHWT, and many other African water towers, and their role in providing freshwater to people and wildlife,” said Dr Lourenco.