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Okavango:  Africa's Last Eden

After the grandeur of the savannas in Kenya and Tanzania, much of the northern Botswana appears, to the uninitiated, like a featureless scrubland. There are no mountains like Kilimanjaro looming over the land or spectacles like the congregation of a million wildebeest on the open plains of Serengeti. But what Botswana has is wilderness. It has often been compared, with some nostalgia, to the way East Africa was 30 years ago—before the tremendous pressure of population growth, before the commercialization of the safari industry, before hunting as a way of life came to an end, before poaching became a major force. Botswana, many say, represents the last of Old Africa. And in the heart of this arid land lies a place as inspiring and as incongruous as the snow-capped summit of Kilimanjaro rising on the equator: the Okavango Delta, one of the greatest wetlands on Earth, whose very existence in the middle of the Kalahari Desert is nothing short of miraculous.

The editors of National Geographic shared my excitement, and with their generous support, my mission expanded to covering the Okavango and northern Botswana in a way that was as comprehensive as the subject deserved. My efforts were aimed at chronicling not just the Pleistocene abundance of wildlife, but the epic quality of this world in which these animals are bound together—and the crucial importance of water, without which all life in this land would fade away. For a year, I roamed the wetlands and the dry lands of northern Botswana. I lived by the rhythms of water and the movements of wildlife. I came to know landscapes intimately, and animals individually-and watched the dramas of their lives unfold. I lived out of Land Rovers and canvas tents and crouched at water holes for days on end. I slipped through the swamp in dugout canoes and followed lions through the night. I worked with scientists, hunters and Bushmen; wildlife officials, safari guides and people of many races and nationalities who were either born here or had come to know this hard-bitten country as home. By the end of the year, the dirt of the land was under my fingernails. It was hard to leave.

The experience was the realization of a personal dream. To others not yet familiar with this part of the world, the very notion that a place as wild and as untouched as the Okavango even exists may seem like a dream. But the ultimate motivation behind this work is to connect the dream with a larger reality. That reality includes the human presence that will determine the Okavango's fate. In Botswana, the legitimate claims of local people and the economic aspirations of a developing country must be balanced with the growing concern over preserving the Earth's last Edens. The Okavango represents the best of old Africa on a grand scale, but it also affords perhaps the best opportunity on the continent to ensure that the glory of wildlife will be part of New Africa. And that is a dream I hope will be shared.