In one of Africa’s most remote regions, people long cut off from the modern world are slowly making contact and looking to make better lives—inadvertently creating a cascade of environmental and social plights. National Geographic explorer and conservationist Steve Boyes has an idea for protecting these people, as well as their natural heritage.
Conservation biologist Steve Boyes has dedicated his career to working in the Okavango Delta, a 18,000-square-mile wetland wilderness that straddles the borders of Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. Here, he tells the stories of two communities in the region. One had never met outsiders before; the other was transitioning from a traditional subsistence livelihood to selling bushmeat commercially. The narrative below was edited from a conversation with Boyes.
In 2015, as part of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, my team and I traveled in dugout canoes down Angola’s Cuito River, the main river system in the Okavango. During the 121-day trip, we went for weeks at a time without running into a soul. But one day, we ran into a large group of women and their children washing cassava roots in the river. They ran away, screaming at the sight of us, leaving all their baskets by the river. We stopped and hiked out to their open campsite in the cassava field to respectfully ask for their help. They then led us 10 miles further into the forest to the main village, to the chief-of-chiefs, Soba Nhangu.
Nhangu himself was old, and a respiratory infection kept him from speaking, but his three sons, who had never met people from the outside world, related their story. It was one of isolation. The community of fewer than 100 Nganguela villagers had had no contact with the rest of the world for four decades, their father having made the decision to hide from the Angolan civil war, which began in 1975, by going to the furthest point away from road and rail access.
Rebel and government forces subsequently blew up bridges to the east, officially cutting them off — and in so doing also making them safe. Civil war raged for 27 years, culminating in the biggest tank battles in Africa since the Second World War. The only way to reach the Nganguela was via river, as we had done, and quite reasonably they weren’t sure what to make of us. From there it was a six-day walk to the nearest known village.
In March 2016, we went back. This time we came across more than 4,000 people living on the other side of the river — about 35 kilometers away from the village near the waterfall. They spoke mainly Luchaze, a linguistic subgroup of Nganguela, and knew of Nhangu’s people, but had assumed they’d either disappeared in the war, left or been killed.
Despite their proximity, the two communities could not be more different. The Nganguela people still live a subsistence lifestyle. They are hunters, but they have few firearms, mainly using bows and arrows, snares, pitfall traps, nets and spears. They live on bushmeat and cassava, and have done so for hundreds of years.
The Luchaze people, on the other hand, have had interaction with the outside world because they were less geographically isolated. As people fled from war, town and rural folks mingled. Discovering weapons and tools in the outside world, the Luchaze took the opportunity to reach for a modern quality of life by hunting and selling bushmeat of animals like antelope, lion, cheetah, leopard and hyena.
Take the example of Mario. He is in his early 20s, and from a Luchaze village called Samanunga but now living an urban life in Luena, a town in east central Angola, 186 miles away by road. He rents eight motorcycles to a group of 15 men, all armed with shotguns. In summer, when the ground is soft, the men dig pitfall lines that are up to 5 kilometers long. These are deep traps with spikes in them; between each trench, they set several loop snares made from bark.
When winter comes, the rains stop and the landscape dries. Mario and his men light the vegetation, and the uncontrolled fires drive hundreds of animals into the traps and snares. The carcasses are then skinned and smoked in a grass hut called a jango. It’s dark inside. The roof is tied with a mix of carcasses. A fire burns day and night, smoking the flesh.
Once the animals are smoked, the men stack them high on a motorbike rack to take them to markets in towns like Cangamba and Cuito Cuanavale, several day’s ride away. With the profits, they buy medicines, roofing materials, radios and books for their families. They also buy more motorbikes and shotguns, bullets, sunglasses, t-shirts, batteries, flashlights to carry on a hunt—and they resupply hunting camps with goods like live chickens, wine, roofing materials and whiskey.
The children of the community may be those hit hardest by the rise of commercial hunting. Of the 4,200 people we encountered in the Luchaze community, more than half were kids, many under the age of five. Until recently, they had access to proper meat protein — hunted seasonally with bows and arrows or shotguns. The hunters sometimes gave animal heads to the community to eat, eating the organ meats themselves.
But with the advent of commercial hunting, meat isn’t being shared any more. Export is prized over local consumption, and women and children are left to survive on cassava cakes and cassava leaves. Women who walk miles to farm cassava near the river also trap small fish with baskets. They crush the fish into the cassava meal, but nutritionally, it’s not enough to grow on. Children who travel with their mothers get some nutrients, but generally, malnourishment is making young ones susceptible to diseases like malaria, typhoid, and flesh-eating bacteria, as well as skin rashes, congestion and stunting.
Commercial hunting is also creating a cascade of catastrophic changes to the basic functioning of this great river ecosystem. The source lakes and main seepages of the Okavango, Kwando, Kwanza and Zambezi rivers are found in this region — the “water tower” of Africa’s largest, most important conservation area. Now, the disappearance of so many animals is creating nutrient deficiencies across the entire ecosystem.
Without animal defecation throughout the area, land becomes sterile, and plant communities begin to change, making it even more difficult for wildlife to survive. The frequent fires set by hunters strip nutrients from the system. Bees, which used to get salt from animals, now sting humans, going after their salty sweat. This situation is exacerbated by the motorbikes providing access to distant markets, stimulating a boom in honey production — resulting in the ring-barking (the stripping of all bark and cambium from lower trunk to promote fruiting) of thousands of trees, destroying woodlands.
Meanwhile, the area’s unique and as-yet undocumented source lakes are themselves endangered. Each about a mile long and crucial to river health and flow, these deep, clear lakes are surrounded by rare stratified peat deposits that, when sampled and analyzed, provide valuable information on the plant and habitat record going back as far as 10,000 years, advancing our understanding of how these wetland ecosystems work.
Each one we’ve investigated has at least one new species of fish in it, as well as frogs unique to this ecosystem. These animals need sustained connectivity to the rivers in order to survive. The extensive burning is disturbing this balance and cutting off source lakes like the Kalua. If burning continues, most of the ancient Cuito River system source lakes will be cut off — along with all the new species that we have found — and not yet found — living within them.
When crises like this hit the news headlines, well-meaning folks often want to erect a fence around “nature” to protect the animals — because we love animals — and start fining hunters, whom we designate as “poachers.” I hate that word. These aren’t poachers — they’re people, surviving.
In fact, men like Mario understand that what they are doing is unsustainable.They warned us. “The trade getting difficult,” they tell us, “We know what we’re doing, but we have no choice.” And they don’t. Once young people from remote villages see how people live in the bigger cities, with taxis, cars, modern tools and equipment, they want that life. They aspire to be taxi drivers, or to earn enough money to buy medicines for their families, to educate their children, to build a home. No one has the right to blame them for this, certainly no one reading the headlines in a printed newspaper or on a screen in a far-off land.
So for anyone who would point the finger at the villagers, I would say this: We cannot sit in judgement of the humans involved, or threaten to move them from their lands. We must celebrate their lives where they are, while offering sustainable solutions that work for them.
My vision: to discourage the commercial bushmeat trade by declaring this area as protected and creating a giant conservation park — and offering the people who live there alternative employment. We’re working with the Angolan government to launch a program that combines low-impact tourism — home stays and mountain biking, horseback riding, canoeing, hiking, wildlife photography and so on — with conservation, creating an economy that gives the people the livelihoods they rightfully want and need, while offering them an incentive to conserve their natural resources.
Those who once hunted will instead help us protect wildlife habitats, while still engaging in traditional hunting for subsistence close to their village communities. We’ll train them to monitor changes in the landscape, track wildlife using camera traps and gather data on water and climate changes. We’ll also work with villagers to create sustainable, government-monitored honey production and distribution cooperatives. To make sure the program is working, we’ll monitor the frequency of motorbikes going to Luena and listen for illegal logging. Anyone caught breaking the rules risks being taken out of the alternative livelihood programs.
Teachers will be deployed in the villages, and we’ve enlisted the help of two TED Fellows, ophthalmologist Andrew Bastawrous and physician Rohini Rau, to assess the community’s vision and health needs. All this will be done with acknowledgement of heritage rights to lands. If the people themselves aren’t invested, the venture will fail.
The Luchaze and Nganguela people alike must be acknowledged and consulted for their indigenous knowledge and allowed to live a traditional life if they wish — while also given the access to information, health care, schools and all the benefits of modern society that make us all better stewards of the places we live.
Essentially, we hope to turn hunters into conservationists. This is a lesson for all of us. All of us need to learn how to live as human beings in harmony with the wild.