Okavango Delta Named 1000th World Heritage Site

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Inland delta is home to robust populations of elephants, lions, hippos, wild dogs, birds, and other species

Last week the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, officially declared the Okavango Delta its 1,000th World Heritage Site. Recommended to the World Heritage Committee by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—UNESCO’s advisory body on nature—the delta was acknowledged as one of the most diverse ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa, comprising wetland and dry land habitat and supporting a diversity of terrestrial and aquatic species, including 71 species of fish, 400 species of birds, and an estimated 200,000 large mammal species, including buffalo, elephants, sable antelope, and black rhinoceros. African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is celebrating the recognition of such a critical ecosystem, particularly as its program design director, Dr. Karen Ross, was instrumental in its designation.

“Most people who have visited the Okavango Delta probably assumed it was already a listed site,’” said Ross, who grew up in Kenya but spent most of her adult life working in the Okavango Delta. For years Ross collaborated with the government of Botswana, local communities, and other stakeholders to promote the delta’s listing as a World Heritage Site. “Only 30 percent of the Okavango Delta had a protected area designation, and given some of the threats it’s facing, there clearly needed to be an extra layer of protection.”

That extra layer of protection could be achieved through a World Heritage Site listing, according to Ross, as the site is then party to international law.

“The delta is situated at the lower reaches of a river system that rises in Angola and flows through Namibia before reaching northwestern Botswana,” says Ross, explaining that the water then fans out over two million hectares of permanent marshlands and seasonal floodplains which support a vibrant array of life before disappearing into the Kalahari Desert. “World Heritage status would help prevent unsound developments both in Botswana and in upstream countries whose activities could negatively impact the Okavango Delta.”

The arrival of the water in the delta during Botswana’s dry, winter months attracts buffalo, giraffe, zebra, a dozen species of antelope, and a full tableau of African predators, among other species. Additionally, the Okavango Delta is at the heart of a landscape that is home to the world’s largest elephant population, estimated to be around 200,000.

“The delta provides essential habitat for species, while also allowing for their movement and dispersal, contributing to that essential connectivity which allows for the different sub-populations and the entire meta-population to remain intact and healthy,” explains AWF’s senior director of conservation science, Dr. Philip Muruthi. “It is part of the ecological system that sustains the species.”

For years, Ross worked with Botswana’s Department of Museums, which shepherded the nomination through its multiple layers of compliance, working with numerous government departments, academic institutions, NGOs, and other stakeholders. By late 2009, the Okavango Delta was placed on Botswana’s revised UNESCO Tentative List. In 2012, the Okavango Delta Nomination Dossier was submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. Last week Ross and others celebrated the UNESCO ruling at the 38th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, where the nomination was announced and given pride of place as the 1,000th UNESCO heritage site.

The new designation is expected to attract investment for tourism development and greater conservation of the site.  Over and above its conservation value, the World Heritage status is widely recognized and can be a powerful branding and marketing tool. 

“Now the mandated Botswana management authority will have the challenging task of not only coordinating and controlling activities in the delta, including tourism and community natural resource uses, but also periodically reporting back to UNESCO on the site’s status and noting any potential threats,” says Ross.