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Rivers, diamonds and wildlife: shaping Botswana

Botswana- a dry arid land where rain means more than just filling up lakes and waterholes.

Early last year, I had the opportunity to visit an incredible country- Botswana. But I didn’t understand quite how unique and wonderful it is until I returned later that year and spent five weeks in the southern part of the country. Botswana’s history and the source of its success today is marked by great geological events, political moves, high profile romances, diamonds and great respect for wildlife. Rain is extremely important in such an arid land, so much so that Botswanan currency is “Pula” meaning rain and 100 “thebe” meaning rain drop, make a Pula.

Botswana is a fascinating country being one of the few African countries that was not fully colonised by the Europeans (it became a British Protectorate in 1885 and went on to become the Republic of Botswana in 1966). It also went from being one of the poorest countries at its “independence”, to one of the few economically stable and politically peaceful countries on the continent.

Mighty Rivers

The Okavango: the pan handle is the section at the top of the picture which then give rise to the fingers making up the seasonally flooded part of the delta. Picture source: © 2012-2017

It all began more than 5 million years ago. Back then, the Okavango River, flowing in from the Angolan highlands, the Zambezi and the Linyanti rivers flowed down through northern Botswana and into the Motlotse. Being fed by such big rivers, the Motlotse was huge, joining the ranks of large rivers like the Nile and the Amazon. On the middle eastern part of the country was the Mkgadikgadi lake, one of the largest inland lakes, supporting a great diversity of life. The formation of the Great Rift Valley caused geological disturbances felt as far as Botswana. These disturbances caused fault lines across what is today the Okavango Delta. Three fault lines, one at the edge of the pan handle (broad valley of permanent swamp at the head of the floodplains) and two others at the edge of the pan fingers caused the Okavango to be halted and stop flowing into the Motlotse. The Okavango’s waters disappear into the sandy soils of the delta feeding water tables. The Linyanti River changed its course, taking a 90 degree turn and flowing into the Zambezi and onwards into the Indian Ocean. The Zambezi River also changed course and instead of flowing into the Motlotse, it now flows into the Indian Ocean. Over the decades, the Mkgadikgadi Lake, began shrinking as it was no longer being fed by the Motlotse. All evidence left of this massive inland lake, is the Mkgadikgadi Pans- great flat lands characterised by the mineral and salts left behind after the water was used and evaporated. Today the Motlotse no longer flows regularly due to bad management. What was once a mighty river is now just a tributary to the Limpopo river. Incredible occurrences such as Zambezi or bull sharks swimming upriver towards the Kruger park and catching nyala will no longer happen.

The Motlotse flowed right over Solomon's Wall. One can only imagine the time and intensity of the river required to completely erode this 10m high wall.

Every year, the Okavango flows into the delta, filling the pan handle and then trickling into the palm and fingers of this geological phenomenon (map above; source The many species of reeds imbibe the water and is the source of a great diversity of wildlife. Most of the water disappears into the sandy soil that characterises the whole country. Anyone who has watched BBC’s “Earth’s Greatest Spectacle- Okavango” can grasp how truly special this area is, in its geology and its wildlife; a true jewel of the Kalahari.

Struggle amongst men

Europeans were beginning to take control of African countries and the wealth of their natural resources- Germans took Namibia, Portuguese took Angola and Mozambique, the British took Southern Africa. But at this point, Botswana did not interest these imperial powers. It was an arid land with no known natural wealth and was populated by three main tribes who lived in peace. But things began to change when Cecil Rhodes’ focus fell on the Tuli Block (named after the Tuli River in Zimbabwe and ‘Block’ designating a large area). He dreamt of creating a railway line from the Cape to Cairo through the Tuli Block and begin mining in the area. King Khama III along with the heads of the other two tribes recognized this to be a threat and personally travelled to England to meet with the Queen Victoria to ask for their land to be protected from these plans of exploitation. The Queen was impressed and granted them what became the Bechuanaland protectorate under the protection of British powers. The Khama continued shaping Botswana with Seretse Khama, King Khama’s grandson becoming the first president of Botswana. His uncle recognised Seretse’s potential at a young age and had him educated in the best schools and universities of South Africa and the UK. While studying law in Oxford, Seretse met Ruth Williams and embarked on a love story that would shake traditions and politics in Southern Africa.

Botswana being so arid and low in natural resources relied on South Africa for much of their supplies. It was during the peak of the apartheid times in South Africa and the idea of trading with a country whose top figures was promoting interracial marriage was not acceptable. South Africa put pressure on Botswanan government to stop the marriage or banish the couple. They also put pressure on the British as it was a British Protectorate and England, not wanting to lose access to cheap gold and diamonds agreed to put spokes in the wheels. It was only a year after they had met that Seretse was eager to marry Ruth but his family was against the match. Being from the royal family, his family expected him to marry a girl of their choice and from their community. But Seretse went ahead and proposed to Ruth, set a date and found a bishop in London to marry them. But the British government pressured the bishop to withdrew his support at the last minute and didn’t perform the ceremony. Seretse, furious, took Ruth to the local marriage registry immediately and married her anyway. They lived in exile for the first few years but remained a popular couple having defied culture and governments to be together.

Seretse and Ruth returned to Bechuanaland in 1956 and shortly after, he found himself mingled in local politics. He became the president of the newly formed country of Botswana in 1966, a country with few industries and low employment opportunities. A great many Botswanans migrated to South Africa to work in the gold mines.

Diamonds- the sparkle in Botswana’s history

Prospectors began searching for diamonds on the southern part of the warp axis but the geologist belived they were looking on the wrong side of the warp. Surely enough, when they began searching on the other side, ilmenites were discovered. Picture adapted from Russel's presentation.

Seretse was keen on stabilising the country economically and began fervently looking for diamonds following the discovery of a kimberlite on the southern side of the warp axis of the Kalahari Basin (see map, adapted from lectures by Russell Crossey). A team of geologists was sent to explore the area but they didn’t find anything and stay on the southern side of the little hill that followed the warp axis. But there was a South African geologist, Alex Du Toit, whom everyone considered a bit mad because of his theories about the paleo Motlotse River and crustal warping, but in whom Seretse had a lot of confidence, had a different theory. He maintained that if something was to be found, it would be found on the other side of the warp axis. At this point, searching the other side would require heavy equipment and machinery which Seretse did not have the funding for. So there followed many discussions between Seretse and the geologists. At the back of the room sat an ecologist quietly listening to the discussions and after a while he shared his opinion. He believed that if there were indeed any signs of diamonds to be found, they did not require any heavy machinery to find it. Termites tunnel deep into the ground and turn over the earth so well that it was quite probable and possible to find clues within termite hills. But this posed another problem- the area was littered with termite mounds, how were they going to check all of them? The geologists carefully studied maps of the rivers and how they flowed and began their search based on the predicted trajectory of the Okavango into the Motlotse before its flow was interrupted. And there, they made an incredible discovery- lamprophyres (para-kimberlytes) that contained ilmenites and proved that the theory was correct. The geologists were over the moon but Seretse asked them to give him one week before announcing this fantastic discovery which would change the future of Botswana. He rushed back to the capital and gathered his rather small council and asked if they would agree to a new law. Any mineral discoveries would henceforth belong to the country and not just the tribe on whose land the mineral was discovered. The council agreed unanimously thinking Seretse was a bit silly as there were no minerals to be found in Botswana. And so, a lucrative diamond mining industry began in Botswana leading to a true success; 60% of Botswana’s exports today are of diamonds and amounts to 25% of its gross domestic product. Botswana remained relatively neutral during the civil war in Angola and subsequent unrest in Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It emerged as an African economic leader with its top foreign exchange earnings being beef, diamonds and wildlife tourism. Seretse Khama passed away in 1980 leaving an incredible legacy. Ian Khama, Seretse’s great grandson, is the current president and has already made waves in the wildlife sector, and using his military knowledge is waging a successful war against poachers. In 2012, Ian Khama announced that Botswana would no longer accept trophy hunting by the end of 2013 with the aim of promoting photographic tourism and increase the success of conservation projects. Today, Botswana is one of the few African countries where trophy hunting has been replaced by sustainable tourism which accounts for 12% of the country’s total GDP (and generating 32,500 jobs directly). About 17% of Botswana land surface is protected in the form or national park or game reserve, showing the great importance and respect accorded to wildlife.

Threats and the future

Although the main threats to the continued success of this wonderful country are unemployment and HIV, the biggest threats are the Chinese interests in Namibia and Angola lobbying to dam the Okavango River and thus threaten the very existence of the Okavango Delta and its incredible biodiversity. A plan to do so in the past was already been thwarted and the triumph of wildlife lovers and ecologists over economic interests is certainly a fantastic win. Let us hope that any future plans to dam the Okavango will be similarly foiled and that this unique land and its wildlife will remain protected for generations and generations to come.

Elephants, one of the Big Five that draw tourists from all corners of the world.

Note: a good portion of the information in this text comes from a series of lectures by Russell Crossey during our time in the Mashatu Game Reserve

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