Ona was born and grew up in Maun, Northern Botswana. His passion for the natural world started at a young age when he had opportunities to visit the Moremi Game Reserve as well as several trips to Lake Ngami. After finishing school, he joined the Botswana Predator Conservation Programme as a field assistant. His interaction with the study animals such as lions, hyena, leopard, cheetah and African Wild dogs on regular basis fueled his passion for wildlife and conservation. Following the urge to work in an environment where he could work with both people and wildlife, he switched to guiding in 2007. He later joined Wilderness Safaris in October 2010 and spent almost two years at Kalahari Plains before heading to Duma Tau camp, where he spent another two years before joining the Wilderness Safaris Guide training team in May 2014.
Ona is a keen photographer and an aspiring wildlife photojournalist. His images and articles have regularly appeared in numerous travel magazines including Peolwane, the Air Botswana in-flight magazine; Discover Botswana, the annual publication by Botswana Tourism Board; as well as Travel Ideas magazine in South Africa. His photography makes him a great ambassador for his country and perhaps the pinnacle of his guiding career so far came when he was invited as a guest speaker at Wild Shots Wildlife Photography symposium 2013 in Cape Town. He also shares a lot of his images with the company’s Facebook page where he has often received a lot of accolades for his work.
Ona combines his role as a guide with mentoring and inspiring young and upcoming guides as he travels through various Wilderness camps. His passion for photography has led to a big interest in animal behavior and behavioral ecology. He also enjoys leading walking safaris where the focus is on macro life that one would completely miss from the vehicle. He is also a keen birder who participates in various Birding forums around the Southern African region.
Ona is both a highly sought after guide and guide trainer for Wilderness Safaris - www.wilderness-safaris.com
How did you first become interested in wildlife and who, later, were the greatest influences upon your guiding career and why?
Being born and raised in Maun meant I always had wildlife at my doorstep. The hundreds of hours I spent either on foot or on horseback herding the family cattle in the Boro area kept me close to nature and wildlife in general. We also had a lot of school trips to the Moremi Game Reserve and Lake Ngami as I was growing up. By the time I was at high school, I was a member of every environmental club around school mainly because of the lure of traveling to nature reserves. It was through all these that I knew I wanted to work with wildlife although it took a while to figure out in what capacity. After school I was always either volunteering or working around Northern Botswana with various wildlife biologists and the interest soared from there. However I have always been an outdoor person so after a while the interest in writing reports and filling in field data started to wilt away. I was now getting more interested in working with people and guiding was very appealing at this stage.
I then joined &Beyond Botswana as a trainee guide, where I met Frank Mashebe, (the company’s regional guide trainer at the time) and Graham Vercueil, (the group guide trainer). These two gentlemen perhaps shaped my guiding style and career into what it is today. Frank’s knowledge and passion for life at macro scale as well as his enthusiasm for adventure makes him one of the most underrated guides in Southern Africa. Graham was unbelievable in his way of teaching; he was calm and had a very soft voice that somehow made you hang onto his every word. He really had a special way of getting his message across that I really enjoyed and envied. Along with another guide trainer, Bryan Olver, these gentlemen inspired me to think about guide training as a career path down the line.
Later I met Grant Reed, (Specialist guide and guide trainer at Okavango Guiding School) and I was awed by his knowledge and passion for sharing it. I spent some time training under him and learnt a lot about birding and botany. The hours we spent, either at his office in Maun, or on foot in the Kwapa area helped build up my knowledge and showed me room for improvement all the time.
One major career lesson that I also learnt from these masters in the field was humbleness. As much as I was always overawed by their presence, they never blew their own horns despite all their achievements as guides. They were all keen to take me under their wing and help me develop as a guide. Frank continues to be instrumental with his guidance about life away from work and he is always a horn away whenever I am stuck and need advice. When you are young, the ability to stay humble when there is a bit of hype about you can be tricky and humbleness is something that I drum into the aspiring guides all the time.
In your feature on the Wilderness Safaris website, it mentions how you are now involved in guide training. What are the qualities you look for in an aspiring guide and how do you mentor them to reach their full potential?
Although I spend most of my time guiding, my official title with the company is that of guide trainer. I am part of a team of six along with Anthony Bennet, who is the Head of Guide training, Brian Rode, Chantelle Venter, Cilas Mafoko and Onamile Lekgopho. We recruit and train guides to the company standards and place them into camps.
One major thing I look for in an aspiring guide, which is also our view as a team, is personality. Every guide starting up will always have a very small base of knowledge and we are always looking for people that have the hunger to grow themselves from the basics. Being a trainee guide to me is like being a commercial pilot looking for your first job. Someone has to give you a chance in order to build up your hours and be considered experienced, and without that first chance it will always be difficult to establish yourself. This is often a huge gesture for any company to hand out to an unknown considering the risks involved. A guide with the right personality and hunger to succeed will always grab the opportunity and develop himself or herself further. So when I am interviewing an aspiring guide, I always look for that hunger, a passion to work with people of diverse cultures and a true passion for nature conservation. The right age, (ideally in their early 20s) and good grasp of English makes it easier for us trainers to transfer knowledge and skills to them as well as mould them into great guides.
Once the guides are in the system and gone through our training, it is essential to keep tabs on them and to continue providing mentorship. When I am guiding in the camps, I often invite a trainee guide to join me on game drives or walking safaris and I also join them on their game drives. This is to help improve their knowledge and drum in the company standards at the same time. Once they are guiding on their own, it is paramount to look for any signs of watermelons growing under their armpits from time to time, (a sure sign of over confidence). It is so easy for a trainee to develop some attitude after three or four good feedbacks from guests and when that happens, a one on one discussion often mends everything and they get back on track for good. The most important thing here is to ensure the lads realize their full potential by demonstrating to them that they have a big world and bright future ahead of them as long as they do not go off the rails.
In Botswana, what are the steps to becoming a guide and how intensive is the training, (comparing for instance to South Africa or Zimbabwe), and how long does it take for someone to become fully qualified?
A very important question that I hope to answer fully; the guide licensing system in Botswana is currently in a transitional stage from an old basic system to a more comprehensive one that will hopefully, on paper at least, align us with the best in the region, (being South Africa and perhaps Zimbabwe). Under the system that is hopefully being phased out, a prospective guide would either apply to sit the exam directly as independent candidate or study at an institution and then sit the bar exam with the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. For those that went to institutions, course lengths varied from three months to a year. In my opinion, the exam that would grant you a guide license was always very basic. It did not thoroughly prepare guides for the industry, as it did not cover everything required to produce a competent guide. The onus was always on companies to develop the newly qualified guides pretty much from scratch. Since not all companies provided training, the rest of the guides not employed by Wilderness Safaris, for example, struggled to find jobs and develop further. If they did find jobs, it kept the general standard of guiding very basic henceforth because of lack of further training and assessment.
Things are now under review and the new concept, if adopted well, will certainly address this. Under the new system in discussion, there will be levels from Level 1, (which is more of a foundation qualification), to Level 3, (which would be the highest qualification). At Level 2 and 3, there will be strands such as mokoro poling, boat, vehicle guiding and overnight safari guiding. A guide will have to undergo assessments and be deemed competent in order to attain a particular strand and will carry out only activities that reflect on his qualification certificate. To allay fears of losing guides under the new system, there is a strong emphasis on “Recognition of Prior Learning” so that the guides that attained their qualification a long time ago will have their prior experience endorsed into their new qualifications. This new qualification system will also ensure that a guide license will now be regarded as a national qualification guided by the National Vocational and Qualification Framework, (much like the FGASA qualifications in South Africa).
Whilst the new system makes all the old system seem elementary, I have to say Botswana has nonetheless produced some fine guides over the years under the old system. The guiding standard has always compared considerably well with the rest of the continent. Quite a few guides have gone on to forge great careers and serve the tourism industry well. The likes of Bakang Baloi, Frank Mashebe, Grant Reed, Moa Monwela and Vic Horatius, to name but a few, are all quintessential examples of how guides could still develop themselves to a bigger stage despite the limitations I spoke about earlier.
Since joining Wilderness Safaris in 2010, what have been your personal highlights?
2010 seems like a decade ago when I look at how I have developed here, both personally and career-wise. It is difficult to single out highlights as I have had a fantastic time throughout. While I am a guide first and foremost, I hardly ever place emphasis on awards or the rich and the famous I have guided. My main aim is to consistently deliver a great, guided experience to every guest that arrives at which ever camp I am at. Every guest that leaves with his or her expectations having been wildly exceeded makes my day. A personal highlight that perhaps stands out would be when Harriet Nimmo, (Founder of Wildshots Wildlife Photography Symposium), invited me to be a guest speaker at Wildshots Wildlife Photography Symposium in 2013. At the time the invitation was a bit of out of the blue and to be honest I was puzzled. It was only at the conference that I got to know that the recommendation came from Don Pinnock, the former editor for Getaway magazine, after I guided him for four nights at Duma Tau Camp a few months earlier. Also I had always had a dream to see myself training and mentoring aspiring guides in this country, so being asked to join the Guide training team here last year was another highlight of course. I now find myself in this beautiful space where I train guides but I still get to guide regularly and therefore my photography isn’t suffering either.
Let’s talk photography: what came first, becoming a guide or the passion for taking photographs? How has your photography evolved and what have you learnt from those who you have guided? What has been the best photo you have taken and why?
I actually guided for the first two years without a camera at all but I had a desire to acquire one and get into photography. It was at Kalahari Plains in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve when I felt I couldn’t wait any longer. I bought my first camera from a guest, Reto Shegg, who had forgotten the battery charger back home and he was happy to leave the camera behind.
I was completely clueless about wildlife photography then and also geographically isolated from the other photographers within the company at the time, being Grant Atkinson, Lets Kamogelo, David Luck and Vic Horatius. I had to learn everything from literature, or from guests that I guided and also just from loads of practice, (thanks to the digital era for it would have been too costly if I was using film!!). A lot of guests were coming through with cameras and were willing to help me with the technical workings of a DSLR. Because of my interest in photography, I was also constantly assigned to guide a lot of photographers and this helped a great deal because I was always asking for advice and some of them had websites and I would follow their work afterwards. With all this help and an occasional mail from Grant Atkinson, my knowledge slowly improved and I started getting confident enough to share some images on social media.
When I started I was always cropping too tight in order to show the bore of the animal’s eye and the gore of every action. I was always trying to capture action and my images hardly ever had the sky in them. With time I started appreciating images of animals, their background and the sky. Change of camps from the semi-desert region to Linyanti in 2012 also influenced the evolution of my photography. I was now in a place with lots of surface water and within a week I had photographed lions galloping in water. People who have been on safari with me in Northern Botswana will all provide testament about my obsession with capturing that splash as a predator gallops across a floodplain!! I now appreciate photographing a subject in water or just having water as a background more than I ever did. I also remember when I started out, I would pack the camera away a soon as the light was gone or if it was raining, however now I will still shoot to get silhouettes or raindrops on the animal. As time went by and I got to know the limitations of my camera gear, I also became more comfortable with the enhancing software, (that nasty histogram!) and this improved my photography significantly. Initially I would shoot wildly and then spend hours scratching my head in front of the computer. I think I am now a little more experienced and have a good idea about when to press that shutter button. Participating in various wildlife photography forums in social media also meant I now started having an idea about what superior images are already out there and I became more selective with what I shared. Along with following these forums, I have also built my own library over time. This now means I have become more selective with what I shoot and may not just shoot because I have a camera. Another critical factor has been my improved knowledge and experience when it comes to animal behaviour. I am no expert but in most situations I can safely anticipate the subject’s next move from a very small gesture and my vehicle will be ready in place to capture that. When I am at a sighting, I am constantly looking at different possibilities, thinking ahead about what might transpire and what potential the sighting has got to give us that wow moment to capture. This is something that I think, comes with experience and improved background knowledge on animal behaviour.
As for the best shot so far, that’s a very difficult one; one thing I have learnt is I would fall in love with a particular image for a few days or weeks but the excitement dissipates when I get something even better. That said, and because of my earlier confession about some fetish for water splashing around a predator’s body, I will say my favourite image at the moment is the one from Mombo Camp recently when I had Wild dogs chasing a pair of hyena though a pan. The hyena were closely following a hunting pack of six dogs and when they got to the water pan, I decided to hang back on the other side of the pan incase a fight ensued, and we would be in good light. The move paid off nicely as the wild dogs instantly turned around and had a real go at the hyenas with water splashing around them.
How easy is it to engage a guest in conservation discussion? What percentage of the visitors you guide demonstrate an in-depth knowledge in the important issues facing wildlife in Africa? And what, as a guide can you do to encourage that knowledge?
The threat to African wildlife seems to be a fairly universal topic at the moment and awareness around the situation seems to be reaching many ears around the world, especially in Europe and the North and South Americas. Unfortunately I have not guided enough Asians to gauge their awareness, or lack of, to give an informed opinion. Whilst I cannot give a firm number, the majority of the guests coming through are already aware of problems facing African wildlife. Some guests keep returning to Africa because they believe part of the fee they pay ultimately goes towards conservation and thus they are making a difference. Some actually are involved heavily in providing support to various wildlife research projects across Botswana. Conservation is a topic that I find quite easy to engage everyone in. I also keep old copies of Magazines that highlight such problems and often lend them out to guests to read and have more informed opinions if they are interested. I still have the Africa Geographic April/May 2012 issue that was especially dedicated to Rhinos and also have the issue where John Hanks and Ian Michler discussed the pros and cons of trophy hunting. Guests are always keen to read those during their stay and it gives them a more in-depth analysis around these pressing wildlife conservation matters.
A guide’s passion for conservation is always infectious hence the animals will win a few hearts of sympathy. It is therefore very important for guides to go the extra mile at following all the good, the bad, and the ugly news surrounding African Wildlife and share those with guests constantly. It is important to share the figures, be it poaching incidences, animal poisoning incidents or just individual conservation success stories. Conservation is at the core of why we are guides in the first place and therefore I personally believe guides have a mammoth role to play. Photography is another venture that can help spread the message and since guides are always on the ground, they can easily help raise awareness by sharing their images with the world via the various social media outlets that are at our disposal today. As a guide trainer, I appreciate that now I am training new age guides with great technology around them compared to when I started out. I encourage them to use this modern technology to benefit their guiding careers as well as conservation. They now acquire cameras and share their images with the world via the social media. Lately I have noticed that every time I get into a camp, there is someone with a new camera and they need some tutoring, something that is quite encouraging. Photography has become, and will continue to be, a powerful tool for wildlife conservation and the more cameras out there, the merrier.
How do you assess what a guest wants from their safari and how do you balance the needs/requirements of one with those of another. (Especially when it comes to being in a shared vehicle.)
I think it is absolutely imperative that a guide knows the specific interests and needs of every individual guest in his vehicle because every single guest should at the end of their stay, be satisfied with the effort that the guide put in towards meeting and perhaps exceeding their expectations. I always try and find more info about every individual either from the booking sheet, (Nationality, Age, dietary requirements, camps they have visited before, camps they are going to next), or by asking questions when I pick them up from the airstrip. Occasionally I will chat to the guide at the guests’ previous camp and will pick up on their interests before they even land at my camp. Observation can also give one a hint; for example, a guest coming off the plane carrying big brand binoculars and a telescope is most likely to be a keen birder whilst a guest coming off the plane with big camera gear is clearly interested in photography. I will try to have as much info as possible before the first game drive. This way I can plan their stay and line activities in a certain pattern. Regardless of how diverse the group’s interests are in the shared vehicle, the focus should be on each individual and ensure they feel they are in the right vehicle. While we don’t succeed all the time, we always try and have people with similar interests and expectations in the same vehicle and it always helps when it works out well.
While it is occasionally tricky to address every individual’s needs and interests, I have to admit that most guests coming through often have similar interests and are always willing to compromise in certain situations. They all understand that they are in a shared vehicle and flexibility is key towards enhancing not only their own their safari experience, but that of the other people in the vehicle as well.
Most safari tourists to Botswana, (as other countries), are limited by time: despite being able to say they’ve visited Botswana, they fly in and out of wildlife destinations but how much of Botswana do they really experience? What do they miss by just transferring directly to Camp A, B, C then flying home? What more does Botswana have to offer the visitor and what can be done to open up cultural tourism in the country, combine it with wildlife tourism?
For many years Botswana was marketed as a wildlife destination more than anything else in terms of tourism. I cannot personally fault anything here because an iconic place like the Okavango Delta will always heavily overshadow everything else from the start. Literature and Wildlife documentaries from places like Chobe National Park, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Okavango Delta and the Savuti have sort of created this cliché that Botswana tourism is more of a wildlife destination more than anything else. Due to limited time, as you say, tourists traveling through will therefore mainly choose these wildlife destinations. It is also a challenge to combine these wildlife destinations with cultural tours because of distances between in situ cultural, archaeological and historical attractions, and the wildlife destinations. Because most wildlife concession areas are often removed from the local villages it becomes important to incorporate as many cultural experiences as possible through the people employed in the various camps. Wilderness Safaris, for example, has partnered with various communities in the region for many years and made sure that the community’s stories are well portrayed.
Perhaps a cultural activity that has been successfully drafted in along with the wildlife experience has been the mokoro activity. The mokoro was first introduced by the Hambukushu tribe. They were a fishermen tribe that arrived in Botswana in the mid 1800s from Angola and settled around the panhandle, with some venturing further south along the river’s course. Most of the camps in the Okavango Delta offer mokoro activity along side safari activities and in some instances tourists have witnessed some incredible wildlife sightings from the mokoro. A few years ago some guests at Little Vumbura Camp witnessed lions killing a Red lechwe ram from the mokoro. Another cultural activity that has often being offered in camps has been basket weaving. The Wayei people in northern Botswana are renowned basket weavers and a lot of their descendents are currently employed in the camps in various positions. During their spare time, a lot of them weave baskets that they get to sell in the curio-shops. In some camps, some are happy to demonstrate their basket weaving skills to guests. This can be quite popular especially for families traveling with young kids.
Time pressure has a created a feeling that the cultural, archaeological and historical sites may not be attractive enough to motivate visitors to explore these places exclusively. However for people that have time, there are quite a few cultural destinations spread across the country. In northern Botswana, the Tsodilo hills, (a UNESCO World heritage Site) and Gcwihaba caves are renowned for the San rock paintings. Central Botswana boasts the Makgadikgadi area, Goo-Moremi and Old Palapye ruins to name a few. Venturing further south, one can explore the National Museum, the rock arts at Manyana village, the Kolobeng missionary site and a few other places that gained popularity from missionary explorers. All these destinations are well promoted through the Botswana Tourism Organisation.
Cultural tourism is on the up in the country and people are slowly becoming aware and becoming more interested in visiting these sites. Physical infrastructure is improving and thus making them more accessible. Along with the infrastructure, I think it is vital that local residents around these places are given vigorous education about the history of the sites. This can help identify passionate resident guides that will make such a trip memorable to the visitor. This will also create employment opportunities as well income to the communities living around these monuments.
Whilst safari tourism to Botswana’s prime wildlife destinations seems buoyant, what about tourism in the more marginal wildlife areas? What percentage of Botswana’s annual visitor number book to visit such areas and what, in your opinion, can be done to encourage more?
It is well documented that Botswana is a low volume, high value safari destination. The Botswana government is adamant to continue supporting this effective tourism model so as keep the destination as exclusive as possible and in so doing protecting this fragile environment for future generations. Marginal areas are potentially more affordable and attractive to specific tourism sectors, such as the mobile safaris and self-drive tourists and assist in diversifying the industry. These areas provide basic services such as camping grounds with facilities and some have much more rustic lodges. These so-called marginal areas therefore are essential to tourism in Botswana as they help cater for people with limited budget, especially citizens, and also cater for people that enjoy rustic, back-to-the-roots safaris. These areas provide services for the mobile safari industry hence I feel they are a playing a big role in diversifying tourism in the country. While I do not have figures to support my opinion, I believe that self-drive and mobile safari operators are popular and financially benefiting many citizen operators.
Also most of the marginal areas are in close proximity of local communities hence they play a big role in involving local people in conservation. This is through creation of jobs and small businesses that develop to provide small services around these areas. It may be vital to note here that a lot of the marginal areas were previously under the control of the consumptive tourism sector, therefore it is essential that local communities are involved in the current set-up in order to change mind sets, where need be. It is also essential that local communities derive direct benefits from tourism in order to help conserve nature around these areas. The Community-Based-Natural Resource Management policy was implemented in 1993 to address the above, and although a work in progress, it has created a sense of ownership of most of these conservation areas by the local communities.
What is your view of the high cost low impact safari tourism model and can it be applied to all wildlife destinations in Sub Saharan Africa? Why does it work so well in Botswana?
High cost-low volume, (better explained as low volume–high value), policy promotes the conservative use of sensitive environments and at the same time creates exclusivity. By keeping the visitor volume low, sensitive habitats are protected from over utilization and at the same time demand to visit these destinations increases. As a guide, I personally like the feeling of being out there and knowing that there is probably only so many vehicles that I may or might not even come across. There is never the jostling to squeeze into a sighting that is often associated with places that have too many safari vehicles out. Despite the basic qualification system for guides that I spoke about earlier, I think the low volume-high value policy also keeps the standards of guiding high. There is a lot more integrity from guides and the hunger to be among the best drives the standards. Since there are only so many companies, guides have to constantly up their game in order to be marketable and find jobs with relative ease. On conservation front, it is a policy that will surely ensure that wildlife destinations remain pristine for the future. There is a much smaller human footprint because camps are smaller and fewer.
Would it work in other countries? I personally think implementation success would be dependent on a few factors. The country’s human population, its distribution and land use, as well as geography of the areas come to the fore here. For Botswana it was feasible then and it’s a success because the population of the country is only about two million people, and was significantly even smaller when the policy was put in place. A small population meant a lot more land could be set aside for wildlife conservation without depriving people of land for farming for example. Currently almost 40% of Botswana’s land belongs to wildlife. The iconic areas that are driving the policy in Botswana at the moment; being the Okavango Delta, the Linyanti/Chobe, and the Savuti only had small pockets of human settlements. Most of these were subsistence fishermen and farmers. Present land use around wilderness areas is a major factor because communities may not simply be uprooted to make way for exclusive lodges and safari camps. In terms of geography, the policy seems to thrive where there are iconic places of world renown. The Okavango Delta, for example, is an iconic landmark that lures a lot of visitors every year. A country must heavily market their iconic places as well in order for the concept to work. High abundance of wildlife is also key because people pay higher premiums for a combination of great wildlife and a sense of exclusivity.
Having elaborated on the above, I also think political stability in the country is vital. It is a no brainer here that a feeling of lawlessness, corruption and greed often drives not only potential investors, but also potential tourists away. A strong political will towards nature conservation and a drive to improve citizens’ livelihoods through tourism also helps to market a country as a wildlife destination and people will be willing to pay for this experience.
As more and more properties cater for the high-end luxury market with the associated amenities for that demographic, i.e., plunge pools, bush spas, wi-fi Internet access, mobile phone networks etc., how can these developments be balanced with the “green” ethos? And how can the impact of such safari properties on the environment be minimized? What of the thought that the luxury market place is getting ever further away from the true ideal of being out in the wilderness, being part of nature itself?
The tourism industry is about people and their needs dictate the market. The market is a very dynamic one and companies have to create or follow trends that can generate business. Whilst plunge pools, bush spas and all those modern amenities attract business and help penetrate the associated demographic market, it is important to ensure that a safari destination remains a safari destination. It is up to companies to create a balance between the in-camp luxury and a safari feel about a camp. By running away from these modern trends, one is simply turning down business from the sector of people who love their extra comfort and luxury. Having said that, there are only a handful of camps in Botswana that provide this level of high-end luxury and they all do their best to create a balance that ensures the place remains a wildlife destination. We are very fortunate that Botswana has always been marketed as a wildlife destination and most of these high-end lodges are in areas where the density and diversity of game is high. Those camps market the wildlife ahead of in-camp luxury, and perhaps this is why I am yet to meet a guest who came to just soak some sun in camp and enjoy massages without going on game drives. It is all about creating a well-balanced experience with the right balance of luxury and exceptional wildlife viewing. I personally believe that in order to maximize your safari experience one needs to completely disconnect from the daily stress that life brings in order to reconnect with nature. Guests have to appreciate that the amenities such as wi-fi are of limited use and should not affect theirs, or the safari experience of others in camp in any way. Most companies with these high-end lodges also have more rustic camps as well that cater for those who do not care for the ultimate luxury. These two sets can even be combined in one itinerary to get the best of both worlds.
While it is attractive to have all these luxurious amenities, it is important to keep an eye on the carbon print that comes with their usage. I have to say here that most, if not all, of these extra amenities are environmentally friendly especially in Northern Botswana where surface water and sunshine are relatively abundant. Some companies are actually even going the extra mile by opting to use solar power and cut back on carbon fuel usage. This further sends a conservation-conscious message since not every gadget can be powered by solar.
Imagine a visitor has 3 weeks to spend on the ground in Botswana, (as a first time visitor): what, in your opinion, would be a great itinerary which provides a good overview to the country’s highlights. Why would you recommend such an itinerary? Is there a lower cost alternative that would offer something similar?
The major wildlife destinations are the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the Okavango Delta and the Linyanti/Chobe/Savuti complex. The Central Kalahari is a semi-desert and the game viewing there can be spectacular, especially during the rainy season. I would encourage visitors to start there and then head into the Okavango Delta. There are some camps that mainly provide water activities such as mokoro and motorboats in the Delta so I would combine a water-based camp as well as a drier camp in order to truly experience the Okavango. The Linyanti/Chobe/Savuti region is renowned for high concentrations of elephants and predators so that’s another major highlight. Such an itinerary provides for a variety of habitats and game viewing plus a variety of activities to indulge in. If one is on a limited budget and want a more adventurous safari, they could experience all these regions by mobile camping safaris.
Growing up as a child in Botswana, what emphasis is put on wildlife and the environment in the school curriculum? In your opinion, what improvements could be done at a school level to encourage a greater understanding of/involvement in, conservation matters?
The school curriculum offers such subjects as social studies, environmental studies and geography from primary school level. These subjects aim at teaching pupils about nature, environment and conservation. Most, if not all schools have active environmental clubs that offer education on nature conservation and protection of natural resources. While the theory is great and the message reaches the right ears, I think it is important to beef things up with a lot of field trips. Some schools do offer a few trips a year, but I think more can be done in order for the school kids to understand and relate. Trips to the game reserves and national parks may provide inspirations to some kids to take on wildlife conservation as a career path. Also such trips may help kids educate their folks back home about conservation.
What incentives exist for Batswana, especially the younger generation to visit the parks and reserves? What is the cost of “going on safari” for a Batswana compared to SADC visitors and those from overseas?
First of all I think we should divide wildlife destinations in Botswana into two based on affordability; the game reserves and national parks, as well as the exclusive camps and lodges in private concessions. Figures from the Parks and Reserves Reservations Office, (PARRO), indicate that Batswana pay lower park fees compared to SADC and overseas visitors in parks and reserves. It should also be noted here that the best wildlife destinations are in the northern part of the country while the younger generation with good income are mainly based in the central to southern part of the country, (in the cities). Now the question is how much interest in nature does these youth with good income have? A few years ago, youth in the cities preferred a weekend in Johannesburg or Mafikeng than camping in Moremi Game Reserve in my opinion. However this is changing, (through better internal promotion of local destination tourism) and lately Maun is buoyant with citizen tourists during national holidays and it is something that indicates a change in mindsets. A lot more Batswana are taking up camping and traveling in northern Botswana and this is the only way that incentives may be increased to cater for the numbers in the future. It is indeed an encouraging sign as it also boosts local communities that run campsites, small lodges and mobiles safaris in marginal areas.
Exclusive camps and lodges charge higher rates and affordability therefore, becomes an issue with Batswana. This is perhaps why there are fewer citizen tourists in these places on annual basis. However some companies offer discounted rates for Batswana and it is something that can be appreciated. In some companies, Batswana are treated as walking-in clients and thus enjoy highly discounted rates. Once we have more and more Batswana becoming aware of this and taking advantage of these rates, I am sure more companies will come on board and recognize the local citizenry as a potential market that can be enticed and tapped.
How important is it for local communities in Botswana to be involved in the conservation process? Decision-making? Benefit directly from wildlife management?
As someone once said, you can’t teach conservation to an empty stomach. People will only protect something if they see a direct benefit from its existence. There are a few communities that inhabit some areas around the wildlife management zones. Some of them may have been farmers, or simply living off the land over generations. It is important to involve such communities in decision-making processes as this helps to reduce conflicts between people and the governing authorities as well conflicts between the people and wildlife. Their involvement leads to people being more informed and hence appreciate certain decisions aimed at protecting wildlife. Consultation is something that is deeply rooted in Batswana’s culture and local people always appreciate being involved in decisions regarding their land and other natural resources. It is always important to get their buy-in through consultation and perhaps education about wildlife conservation. Most importantly people want to see the benefits of certain decisions before the buy-in. While conservation is always aimed at protecting natural resources, it should also improve the livelihoods of local communities. This may be in the form of job creation, improved infrastructure and general income. Botswana has done relatively well with this approach hence there are fewer cases of subsistence poaching compared to the rest of Southern Africa at the moment.
What benefits do people in Botswana see from Safari tourism? Obviously it’s important for the country’s economy both on a national and local level but again what of those living in marginal areas? How is revenue from concession leases etc., distributed?
Tourism is the biggest employer in the private sector in Northern Botswana. A lot of youth find employment in lodges around the delta as well as in companies providing services to those lodges. As for marginal areas, the Community Based Natural Resource Management, (CBNRM), was set up in the 1990s to ensure that local communities derive benefits from tourism in their areas. Community trusts were set up to administer lease fees and their distribution to the local people. This has over time improved the livelihoods of these people. Companies operating in marginal areas have a big obligation to employ and train locals so as to improve their livelihoods. By so doing, communities see direct benefit from tourism in their areas and therefore they conserve the natural resources around them. The concept has worked well over the years and has helped curb the persistent issue of subsistence poaching.
Whilst a lot of the world’s media focuses upon the iconic species, how worried are you by the increasing instances of poaching of lesser-known species in Botswana? For instance there has been a growing trend in the illegal trade of pangolins, (whether for meat or scales), but yet it still attracts little focus by NGOs other than grass roots organizations.
My worry here stems from the fact that we do not have figures to know whether we have a problem in our hands or not. I am as clueless as the next man since not much research is being carried out on these lesser-known species. Efforts and funds seem to be concentrated more on iconic species such as elephants, Rhino, the big cats, Wild dogs, Roan and Sable antelopes to name a few. Funding from the government, the private sector as well as from philanthropists must be allocated to research work on these lesser-known species. It is the only way that we can pick up trends in populations and attention can be brought up in cases where there are sharp declines in populations. The illegal trade in pangolins is a worrying one because Botswana has pangolins too. For now though there are no known poaching incidences on this species here. At least for now we can draw a little comfort that the media is raising public awareness on pangolin trade. By highlighting the problem and showing figures, may be the funders can divert some support towards research on these species. I do not blame the NGOs because they all rely on external funding and such funds come with priorities. It is up to the media to continue with the sterling work on uncovering these bad practices so as to bring attention to people that could help.
How much of a threat is the illegal bush meat trade to Botswana’s wildlife and whilst one can consider areas such as the Okavango Delta to be relatively safe, what about areas closer to the borders?
Illegal bush meat trade is a threat to a lot of countries in Africa, and Botswana is also feeling the negative impact of this to some extent albeit on a smaller scale than certain neighbouring countries. I personally don’t think there are that many places that can claim to be immune to it. Whilst most of Botswana seems to be well protected, there has been some occurrences of internal bush meat trade, and also some more serious cross-border poaching along the northern borders. The physical geography of the Chobe/Linyanti region makes it vulnerable to poaching and we do read or hear news about the Anti-poaching patrol teams engaging possible poachers in the region. The region has a very high concentration of elephants and poaching for ivory will become a significant threat in the future as the continent's numbers dwindle. In the past few years the Government declared that one of the Botswana Defense Force’s primary mandates as one of protecting its wildlife resources. This has assisted in controlling the subsistence bush meat trade to some degree, but some of the remote outlying areas remain vulnerable. Poisoning of poached animal carcasses is of great concern and this is having a heavy negative impact on scavengers, particularly vultures.
Most of the areas that generally appear to be vulnerable to poaching have been identified over time by relevant government authorities and measures are in place to curb poaching. Measures here include setting up of bases with active air and ground patrolling by Anti-poaching units. Joint collaboration between Government and private enterprises is also essential to curb illegal trade. Having often encountered the anti-poaching patrols around the areas I operate in while out guiding, all I can say is, I would think twice about trying to poach an animal in Botswana!
Having recently interviewed Sue Snyman, Programme director of Children in the Wilderness for issue 3 of Safaritalk’s magazine, I’d like to know more about CITW’s activities in Botswana and how are you personally involved – how can you see the programme developing further in the future and what role do you want to play?
The main aim of the programme is to educate and sensitize young kids about conservation in the country. It targets kids in rural areas, most of them underprivileged and living adjacent to wildlife and pristine wilderness areas. The idea is to create leaders for tomorrow who will be inspired to play a big role in conservation of Botswana’s natural resources. For more information about the programme and activities, I have attached a link that may help elaborate more about the actual activities in place at the moment:
Up until now, my training and guiding commitments meant I have unfortunately not had enough time in my hands to contribute to CITW activities. I have mainly been limited to a role of role model as I go about guiding through the camps. Since the programme has also now introduced photography lessons, perhaps I can find time and contribute from that perspective. Conservation and education both have a special place in my heart and if I could contribute through photography, I will be the happiest man.
Having achieved much in a relatively short time at Wilderness Safaris in Botswana, what are your goals in the next few years and where can you see yourself in ten years time on a professional level?
The tourism industry is very dynamic and constantly evolving, especially in Botswana. It is always difficult to predict where one would be in a decade’s time. Two things that are very close to my heart at the moment are guide training and wildlife photography. I would like to continue making a contribution to the development of guides in the country for as long as I physically can. I believe I benefitted immensely from great guidance and mentorship during the early stages of my guiding career and it is something I wish to carry forward and help up and coming guides to realize their potential. I would also like to see myself leading specialist photographic trips across the continent in the near future. While Botswana remains a jewel in terms of prime wildlife photographic opportunities, I would like to explore other parts of Africa as well.
(Matt's note: Ona will be sharing more of his images with us here at Safaritalk and I'll be adding them to this topic. All images courtesy and copyright of Ona.)
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.