Wildlife

Introduction

The Okavango Delta supports large concentrations of animals on both a permanent and seasonal basis. Through careful wildlife management it has become perhaps one of the best places to see animals and birds in Africa.

There is a dynamic seasonal shift of animals between the arid region that surrounds the delta and the Okavango Delta itself. During the wet season most large animals move away from the delta to take advantage of the lush grazing that surrounds it.

As this grazing begins to die in the winter animals move back to the delta. A myriad of species are found within the delta including African Bush Elephant, African Buffalo, Hippopotamus, Lechwe, Topi, Blue Wildebeest, Giraffe, Nile crocodile, Lion, Cheetah, Leopard, Brown Hyena, Spotted Hyena, Greater Kudu, Sable Antelope, Black Rhinoceros, White Rhinoceros, Plains Zebra, Warthog and Chacma Baboon. Notably the endangered African Wild Dog still survives within the Okavango Delta and exihibits one of the richest pack densities in Africa.

In addition to the large animals the Okavango Delta also supports over 500 species of birds and 85 recorded species of fish including Tigerfish, Tilapia and Catfish.

The Diversity of the Okavango Delta

The incredibly varied and rich eco-systems found in and around the Okavango Delta attract a stunning variety of wildlife. It is the incredible variety and concentration of animals and birds which has earned it the reputation as one of the top safari destinations in Africa.

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Keystone Species

The Okavango Delta would not exist as we know it without the help of a number of keystone species which help to shape the environment and habitats in and around the Delta. These eco-system engineers include the elephant, hippo and termites.

African Elephant (loxodonta africana)

Botswana is home to Africa’s largest population of elephants. Elephants are found throughout the delta, although the elephant population of the Okavango varies according to season as the herds migrate during the rainy season and spread out as seasonal pans make other parts of Botswana habitable for these water-dependent megaliths.  These large herbivores consume huge quantities of forage and fodder and can modify the environment, keeping channels open and felling large trees. Occur in herds of several hundred led by matriarchs or smaller bachelor herds.

Elephant are considered important engineers in creating and maintaining the eco-stems of the Okavango Delta. These giants carve channels through the water channels easing the flow of the water further into the Okavango. Their movements change the direction of the water and the speed of the flow. On land, they break and knock down trees opening up dense forested areas and creating more open grasslands required by other species.

 

Termites (Isoptera)

The foundations of the beautiful islands of the Okavango are all thanks to the humble termite. These incredible engineers have build around 70% of the islands of the Okavango Delta.

These incredible engineers have built around 70% of the islands of the Okavango Delta.  It is extraordinary to consider that, without these tiny creatures, there would be no islands to support the Okavango’s trees.  They are also a vital foundation of the food chain; in the early summer the air is filled with flying termites as they emerge from their mounds and provide a banquet for birds, reptiles, frogs and other animals.

Termites are distinguished from ants by their body shape; ants have a highly nipped-in ‘waist’ dividing the thorax and abdomen whereas termites’ bodies are straight lines with little differentiation except between the head and thorax.  Termite mounds are notable characteristics of the African landscape and their size and function is testament to termites’ social structure and teamwork.

Two species of termite do an extraordinary thing for food:  they cultivate fungus in their mounds to break down the vegetable matter they bring there as food.  The workers collect dead dung, dead grass and other vegetable matter and transport it to the nest where they then chew, partially digest and excrete it.  They then mould it into a ‘fungus factory’ or garden on which they purposely cultivate the fungus.  Balls of white fungus are ultimately fed to the queen.  Fungus growing termites’ mounds have long chimneys which ventilate the fungi’s decomposition; these chimneys also allow heat to escape from the mound.  They truly are masters of design.

The societal structure of termites is highly complex and astounding in the subjugation of the individual to the success of the whole.  Termites belong to one of four ‘castes’: workers, soldiers, alates or queen.  Workers repair the mound, store eggs, find food and feed the queen.  Soldiers have large pincers and protect the colony.  Alates are the breeding termites and the queen produces eggs.  Should you visit the Okavango Delta in the summer months you might see the annual flight of the alates when millions of them emerge and fly on their quest to reproduce and form new colonies.  The males follow the females’ pheromone trail to mate with her in a burrow she has dug, where she will become a new queen, immobile due to her vast size, and will lay tens of thousands of eggs per day.

Snouted Termites by contrast only build small, semi-spherical mounds and they are capable of breaking down cellulose in their bodies so have no need of cultivating fungus gardens to do this for them.  They are smaller than fungus growing and harvester termites and have a snout that looks like a long, dark horn.

Harvester Termites are large and do not build termite mounds but instead build a vast system of tunnels underground which connect hives containing shelfs on which nymphs are stored and the queen lives.  Harvester termites cut grass and then drag it back to their holes.

Hippopotamus

Hippos play an important part in maintaining and conserving the Okavango Delta because they help to open the water channels.  Without hippos pushing through the reeds and sedges, the vegetation would choke the waterways and the waters would re-route and flow elsewhere; this happened in the south-west of the Delta at the beginning of the twentieth century where hippos were hunted extensively.  Their absence mean that channels were not kept open and the water diverted; the south-west became dry.

Hippos are huge, aggressive and an iconic and impressive sight to behold.  Weighing up to two tonnes, they are deceptively ungainly but in fact incredibly fast: they can move at over 30 kph.  They stay in water during the day; as they cannot sweat and are susceptible to sunburn, they need to remain submerged during the heat of the day in order to stay cool and out of the reach of predators.  Their nose and eyes are on the top of their heads to allow for vision and breathing when in water.  At night they leave the water to graze and will range far to feed.

Watch out for hippos yawning if your boat nears them when you are on safari.  Their gaping mouths show off huge tusks and teeth; this is meant to intimidate and serves as a warning to approaching potential threats.

Other notable species found in the Okavango Delta

The list of all the wildlife found in the Okavango is extensive, below are a selection of some of the most iconic animals found in the Delta.

Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii selousi) Setswana Setutunga

The sitatunga is a true ‘Okavango Special’ and an incredible adaptation to the watery habitat of the Delta.  This is the antelope most suited to the dense reed beds and deep waters of the centre of the Delta and is found in those areas in in the Delta’s heart where other antelope are not so well suited.  They have extraordinary and strange splayed hooves which allow them to travel across the submerged beds of aquatic plants.  They also display a fascinating technique to evade danger; when threatened, they will submerge themselves in water leaving only their noses above the surface like a snorkel.

Sitatunga are closely related to kudu (although they look more like bushbuck) and share similar spiralling horns but are distinguished by their long shaggy coat and white stripe and spots along the flank.  They eat papyrus and other sedges and grasses and even give birth on floating rafts of trampled reeds.

Red Lechwe (Kobus leche) Setsw. Letswee

Lechwe are masters of the big leap through the waters of the Okavango and they are built for it with shoulders sloping up to much higher rumps.  This conformation gives them an ungainly and not especially fast movement on solid ground but is perfect to power velocity when jumping through water.  Naturally therefore they feel safer in deep water and will seek to escape predation by jumping into water.  You will see large herds of lechwe on the Delta’s floodplains.  The males have backwards curving horns which they use to demonstrate.  Males establish very small territories which are closely situated within a larger arena where they compete for females.

Wild Dog (lyacon pictus) Setswan 'Letlhalerwa'

Wild dog are critically endangered and the Okavango, the Linyanti and occasionally the Chobe region are the best places in the world to try to see these beautiful creatures.  These areas of Northern Botswana are some of the few remaining areas of wilderness large enough to support the wide-ranging wild dog packs and have one of the last remaining viable populations.  These animals used to be found all across Southern Africa but conflict with livestock farmers and disease such as canine distemper transmitted from domesticated animals have devastated wild dog numbers.  Sightings are a rarity even here and will be a highlight of your safari, especially if you have the privilege to see them hunting; they are expert and skillful pack hunters, especially of lechwe and impala in the Delta.  The technique is a long chase with dogs taking it in turns to lead the chase and the others falling back to regain energy until the prey is exhausted and can be run down and killed.

Wild dogs form tight knit social groups and are very playful and gregarious in their pack.  An alpha male and female will breed in June/ July and raise a litter of up to fifteen pups in a den adapted from an abandoned aardvark hole.  The first three months of wild dog pups’ lives are precarious because other carnivores will kill them if found.  The dogs have distinctively round and large ears and their coats are an attractive yellow with brown and black patterns which are individual to each dog.  All have white tipped tails which serve as a ‘flag’ during hunting and to attract the pack.

Lion Panthera Leo (Setswana: Tau)

The lion is Africa’s largest carnivore and almost everyone who goes on safari wants to see lion.  Lions are nocturnal and generally hunt at night so in the daytime will often be found inactive as they sleeping for over twenty hours a day.  To hear from your tent the deep bass tones of a male lion’s communicative roaring at night as he patrols to protect his territory is to experience a primeval awe that is inimitable in modern life.

Lions are sociable which is a unique trait amongst felids.  They live in prides of up to twenty and biologically related males form “coalitions” whose role is to defend the territory of the wider pride, which they will rejoin from time to time.  Life for a male lion is a constant and often literal battle to assert dominance.  Males’ manes develop by adulthood and range from blonde to black in colour.  Juvenile males will be ousted from their birth pride at around two to three years old because after that age the pride males will view them as a threat and behave aggressively.  Mature males will have fierce battles for dominance, sometimes to the death.  If a male lion succeeds in forcing out the incumbent, he will kill the previous dominant male’s offspring to ensure his bloodline prevails.

Lions prefer larger antelopes such as impala and wildebeest and also favour zebra and buffalo and even young elephants.  Although generally the lionesses conduct the hunting, the dominant males will feed first.

Dragonflies and damselflies

Dragonflies with their outstretched wings and damsels with theirs folded are one of the best understood small groups in the Okavango Delta which is home to over 99 dragonfly species.  These vibrant species are drawn to the waters of the Okavango Delta by their need to breed in water, in fact much of their life is spent there as fierce larvae that eat other animals.

Which species are found in a particular area is related to patterns of water availability and flooding.  For example, dragonflies around temporary pools are typical of the species found at short lived rainwater pools in the dry Kalahari.  These species have very short life cycles emerging only 30 days after the eggs have been laid.  Those species living on the permanent waters, by contrast, require water throughout.  The greatest variety of species are found where both permanent and temporary waters are close together.

Nile Crocodiles (crocodylus niloticus)

Crocodiles are shy retiring animals, often seen slipping into the water as people approach. Despite limited hunting in the Delta, the population is not as great as might be imagined. Reproduction suffers both from man’s impact, disturbance of nesting sites, burning, the trampling action of cattle and the wash of boats as well as natural predation with water monitor lizards often dig up nests to eat the eggs. It is estimated that only 2 percent of all eggs laid hatch into young crocodiles.

The majority of the crocodile population is found in the Okavango Delta’s Panhandle and upper reaches of the Permanent Delta with counts showing approximately 2600 crocodiles in the Panhandle. Of these close to one quarter are adults. Crocodiles diet depends on their size with the smallest feeding on insects and small fish whilst the biggest take proportional larger prey. The vast majority of a crocodile’s diet comprises fish, with the abundance of large fish in the Permanent Delta and Panhandle explaining their concentration here.

Flora and Fauna of the Okavango Delta

The aquatic environment of the Okavango has helped to develop a rich and complex eco-systems with thousands of tree and plant species which support the diverse wildlife found in the Okavango.

The diversity of the Okavango and surrounding areas is quite staggering. From Papyrus lined waterways peppered with lilies to open grass plains dotted with palm trees and wild sage, mopane forrests and the ancient baobab trees and acacia.

Common trees include the Candle Pod Acacia (Acacia hebeclada), Leadwood (combretum imberbe), Jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis), Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), Sausage Tree (Kigelia Africana) and the Knobthorn tree.

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