THE GREAT MIGRATIONS OF BOTSWANA

A bird's-eye view of a charming house standing alone in the midst of a dense forest.

As the fences come down around several protected areas of southern Africa, wildlife in their tens of thousands are once again one the move, following ancient migration paths which have been cut off for decades. How do they do it?

 

Wildlife On The Move . . .

They have no GPS, no Google Maps or even a well-worn path to guide them, yet, as if by magic, the remarkable wildlife of the great African continent undertakes epic journeys every year. The most famous of these migrations is the Great Wildebeest Migration which takes place in the Serengeti and Maasai Mara reserves in Tanzania and Kenya. However, what many wildlife enthusiasts are entirely unaware of are the massive and lengthy annual migrations undertaken by huge herds of zebra and elephant, mostly occurring inside Botswana and in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) on the Botswana/Zimbabwe border.

Nobody knows for sure if they are guided by instinct or an ancient form of genetic coding which tells them when it is time to move and which direction to take and this makes it all the more compelling to book a Botswana safari tour to watch this spectacular natural phenomenon.

 

A Little Background:

Botswana is a generally arid part of the continent and was also one of the poorest countries in Africa when she gained her independence in 1966. Cattle farming was established in many areas to produce meat for export to the European Union but this resulted in European concerns that herds would be infected with Foot and Mouth Disease by mingling with wildlife like wildebeest and buffalo. The EU insisted that Veterinary Fences be established to separate wildlife and domestic animals. Although Botswana is at the forefront of animal conservation and over 25% of her land is covered by game reserves and National Parks, no one fully understood the importance of migratory routes, many of which were cut off by these fences.

The 1970’s were an exceptionally grim time for wildlife in Botswana. As their traditional routes to fresh water and pastures were cut off, tens of thousands of animals died and the country’s wildebeest population of more than 500,000 animals was reduced by a massive 90%. Not only were wildebeest affected, but numbers of antelope dropped significantly too and this caused a drop in the number of predators.

The Good News:

In a triumphant moment for conservation, the first of several fences was removed in 2006 and thousands of animals were free to move around at will. Astonishingly, within a short space of time large herds of zebra were once again following the traditional migration paths of their ancestors. It must be recalled that zebra live for about 12 years, and none of the current herd were alive when the fences were erected in the 70’s. None of them had migrated before the fences were removed in 2006, yet a long-buried genetic code (or a prompt from Mother Nature) has caused them to once again set off along the exact same traditional paths to seek greener pastures.

There are two completely separate zebra migrations within the borders of Botswana, as well as a massive migration of elephant which begins in the greater Chobe district and crosses KAZA (Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) into Zimbabwe. They all take place against the backdrop of some of Africa’s most iconic landscapes and following in their footsteps offers visitors to Botswana an unforgettable safari experience.

 

Let us take a look at each of these migrations individually.

The Nxai Pan Zebra Migration

During the dry winter months (July to early November) in northern Botswana, large herds of zebra (estimated to number up to 30,000) can be seen all along the floodplains of the Chobe River, both on the Namibian, Angolan and Botswana sides of the river. Although the first of the summer rains start in this region around the beginning of December, and hold the promise of fresh grazing, some instinct prompts these large herds of animals to start making the 150 mile journey south to the Nxai Pan area, where the rains have usually already started. Their journey is almost directly north to south and some of the animals reach Nxai Pan in just two to three weeks. Others take a more leisurely path, straying off the direct route and covering up to 250 miles.

By the time they reach Nxai Pan, the early rains have turned the usually arid area into wildlife heaven, with plentiful water and fresh, nutritious grazing. This is called the Green Season at Nxai Pan National Park and it is by far the best time to see thousands of zebra and other grazers as well as a large following of predators. The Nxai Pan National Park also offers exceptional cheetah viewing (cheetah love a wide open plains) and lions are also very easily spotted in this landscape as there is little place to hide.

To make things even more interesting, this is the time of year when nearly all the grazers will calf and you can expect to see a multitude of baby animals tottering around. The zebra will remain at Nxai Pan for about three months, feasting on the plentiful grass and allowing the babies to gain strength for the arduous return journey to northern Botswana. Depending on the exact north-south route the herds follow, the distance they cover during their amazing migration could well rival that of the Great Wildebeest Migration. Another bonus for visitors who come to Nxai Pan in summer is the abundance of visiting bird species which join resident birds at this time of year.

The Okavango Delta – Makgadikgadi Plains Zebra Migration

In 2006 the Nxai Pan Veterinary Fence was taken down and approximately 15,000 zebra from the Okavango Delta region had their first taste of true freedom in more than 40 years. The splendid Okavango Delta offers plentiful water and food during the wet months but the southern parts of the delta can dry up completely during the dry season (September to January), causing many animals to have to search near and far for water and grazing. By contrast, the magnificent Makgadikgadi Salt Plains, which are located approximately 150 miles south-east of the delta, will start to receive their rains around the end of November. These long-anticipated rains bring about an almost-miraculous change to the dry salt plains of the Makgadikgadi and within weeks the pans are covered with highly nutritious grasses and herbs. And, thousands of zebra! The animals appear as if by magic – one week there are none and the next week you can watch thundering herds of shimming black and white animals arriving on the banks of the Boteti River. Their arrival is impossible to predict with any certainty and dates will vary according to seasonal rainfall. As with the herds which migrate to the Nxai Pans (which are located just north of the Makgadikgadi) the animals will stay in the area for about three months, feeding, calving and resting before they make the return journey to the Okavango Delta. In addition to seeing all the young animals and many predators, visitors can also enjoy the spectacle of thousands of greater and lesser flamingos, which also migrate to the Makgadikgadi Pans to breed at this time of year.

Another bonus for visitors who come to observe the zebra migration in the Makgadikgadi Pans is the opportunity to spend a few hours observing the comic antics of a colony of habituated meerkat. These wonderful little creatures are so used to humans that they completely ignore visitors and just continue with their daily routine. You can walk with the meerkat at a luxury, expedition-style camp located on a private concession within the confines of the Makgadikgadi Pan National Park

 

Botswana’s Elephant Migrations

It is widely acknowledged that Botswana is by far the best place on the planet to see large numbers of elephant. Almost a third of all African elephants live within Botswana, roughly 50,000 in Chobe National Park and the Linyati Region. Numbers are difficult to establish with any degree of accuracy because the pachyderms are so widely distributed but latest figures indicate that there are around 130,000 elephant in Botswana.

Botswana has had an excellent track record for combating elephant poaching and for this reason the elephant population feels safe within Botswana’s borders. However, such huge numbers of elephant has placed a strain on natural resources such as food and water and has led to large-scale elephant-human conflict in some areas. In 2011 KAZA was established – the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area – which covers a vast area of 193,000 square miles mainly between Botswana and Zimbabwe, but also incorporating Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta. Once these historic migratory corridors were re-opened, huge herds of elephant began to migrate back and forth between the Chobe area and the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, moving from one permanent water source to the next during the dry season in northern Botswana (July to October).

All along this protected corridor visitors are absolutely guaranteed prolific elephant sightings – sometimes you may see up to 500 elephant congregating at one of the permanent water holes. However, visiting this region is not just about the elephants! When you choose a safari in Botswana, KAZA or Zimbabwe you will experience superb general game viewing as well. Wildlife viewing is excellent due to the open terrain and there are large numbers of predators including the highly endangered African painted dog (wild dog).

 

Where to Stay

Botswana has some of the most magical luxury camps and lodges where you can absorb the essence of Africa in comfort. Everyone travelling to the country should ensure that they get the chance to see the wildlife spectacle on offer at the Okavango Delta, before moving on to Chobe National Park, where you can witness the Botswana phase of the zebra and elephant migrations. In Chobe (and in parts of the Okavango Delta) you can enjoy the unique experience of drifting silently along the waterways by boat as a multitude of wildlife goes about their business on the river banks. If you are planning to follow the zebra migration from Chobe to Nxai, you can spend a few days watching the masses of zebra at one of the comfortable luxury camps located on the Boteti River.

Visitors who opt to see the zebra arriving in the Makgadikgadi Pans region can also sign up to enjoy a guided nature walk with one of the local San bushmen, Africa’s oldest living inhabitants. This is an exceptional activity where you will learn about the history and culture of this forgotten ethnic group and learn secrets of survival in the wilderness from these friendly and humble people.

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