The buffalo herd crossed the dirt road in front of us with such wide-eyed, tight-shouldered intent that it was clear something was up. As they hurried through their own dust cloud, I looked back from where they came and saw a male lion emerge from behind a green-leaved tree. Focused, powerful and with eyes of desire, the lion stared at the retreating herd.
“Ah, there’s a lion!” someone said in a hushed voice full of the thrill, glee and anxiety, typical of the African bush. Our vehicle gasped as one, feeling a mixture of fear for the buffaloes and excitement at possibly seeing a kill. The herd was large and still crossing the road, yet the lion did not move. He stood as still as the Great Sphinx of Giza, surveying his land and granting the buffalo a reprieve. For now.
The Botswana bush is teeming with these kinds of heart-stopping wildlife encounters. With no fences and the land just as it has been for millennia, this is the African wilderness in its rawest, most brutal and exhilarating form. The big cats thrive, as do the endangered wild dogs and its birds are among the most varied and numerous in the world. Many people, in fact, come to Botswana just because of its incredible birdlife.
It is Botswana’s unusual combination of desert and delta that attracts this immense concentration of wildlife to its complex landscape of wetlands, savannah and desert. It is wild, pristine and expansive, so visitors are sure to have raw and exciting wildlife encounters.
Elephant Capital of the World
Botswana holds more elephants than any other country in the world. It has about 130,000 of the 350,000 elephants in Africa, equating to roughly a third. Botswana, with its strong environmental policies, acts as a haven for elephants who are poached in its neighbouring countries. These ‘elephant refugees’ find a sanctuary in Botswana where they can thrive.
Elephants can be spotted all over Botswana, from the dry sands of the Kalahari to the wetlands of the Okavango, but it’s in the Chobe National Park that they are most numerous. Chobe has one third of Botswana’s elephants and it’s here, on the Chobe River, that visitors can see thousands of elephants drink at the river and swim across, often using their trunks as snorkels.
Botswana’s zebra migration is the second largest land-based migration in Africa, one of the greatest natural spectacles on the continent. The migration is made up of between 25,000 and 30,000 plains zebra. Their epic journey begins in the southern Okavango and heads through the Nxai Pan National Park, ending up at the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in search of mineral-rich grasses, fresh water sources, and safe breeding grounds.
While this migration of ungulates is not as famous as the Serengeti’s Great Migration, it’s no less impressive. In recent years, researchers discovered that some of the zebra pods travel over 500 km (300 miles) in total. This is the longest land-based mammal migration ever documented in Africa. As with most migrations, large predators follow in the wake of the thousands of zebras, making for some truly unforgettable game-viewing.
Botswana is one of the finest places in Africa for big cats, with cheetah commonly seen in the Kalahari Game Reserve, as well as the infamous black-maned lions. The Linyanti Concession, bordering the Delta, is one of the best places in the world to see leopard. And throughout Botswana’s reserves there is plenty of game, which in turn ensures a strong predator population. We saw plenty of leopard and lion on our trip, which were often the highlights of the day’s sightings.
Wild Dog Wonderland
Wild dog were once widespread throughout Africa and found in 39 countries. Today they are found in just 4 countries; Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa, and there are only 5,000 wild dogs left in the wild. Botswana is considered a wild dog hotspot as it’s home to around 30% of the remaining population.
Anywhere in northern Botswana is a good bet for a sighting but if you have to choose, head for the Linyanti and Kwando concessions. Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango is also considered to be one of the best places in Botswana to see them as it has between 150 and 200 wild dogs and is one of their most stable populations in Africa.
Birding in Botswana
Botswana offers superb birding. The high quality is due to the two extreme environments: the arid Kalahari and the verdant, watery Okavango Delta. The Delta is perhaps the ultimate destination for birding in Botswana. Best visited after the rains, around October, enthusiasts will find the slaty egret, wattled crane, Pel’s fishing owl and lesser jacana. It is during the ensuing summer months that the migrant birds arrive and this is considered the best for birding.
We saw a wide range of birds in Botswana from small kingfishers and bee eaters to bigger owls, eagles and vultures, and, of course, a vast array of water birds.