My road took me back to the north-eastern shore of the Okavango Delta of Botswana. The area we know as “Overseas”. The land of the forgotten people of NG11/12/13
Life here is slowly turning into a tragedy. A tragedy that silences me while trying to understand the rule of the land.
The pace and direction of life has always been dictated by the ebb and tide of the floodwater,or the rain, and every few years by the politics. Never only by the elephants.
The usual rain stayed away this year and the normal floods did not arrive. The drought is now dictating the plot, relentlessly exposing the inevitable. It is only September and the rain usually do not come before December. The water on the flood plains is limited to the main channels and a few pans. The rainfilled waterholes in the north have dried up in May and cattle and elephants are now converging onto the floodplains. Many mouths and many trunks are plucking what is left to be eaten to provide enough stamina for the constant journey between food and water. The daily migration is draining the resilience of the vegetation struggling on the parched soils. Many feet are turning the area into bare sand dotted only with short stubble mopane. The daily walk is draining the energy of the beasts, melting their bodies into skeletal profiles.
The next two months will be relentless.
For many years the animals moved between the flood plains and the woodlands passing the line of people and fields in between. For years they have co-exist, not always in peace, often through landscapes of fear.
This area is not a game reserve. The land use is mixed agriculture in NG11/12 and hunting in NG13. Intrusion was not tolerated and the animals knew it.
However, the last few years things has changed.
Elephants are more, cattle are more. The rain is less. The drought is sucking up the available space. It is impossible to stay out of each others way. The elephants are tense, their temples are dripping. Many trails of dust float above in the morning sun where the herds of elephant cows and calves move north into the dry parched woodlands. They walk as far as the first available browse and the strength of young calves will take them before returning to the floodplains every day.
They return mostly in the shelter of the night, nervously crossing the road past the villages, kraals and fields. The bold and most thirsty start to arrive in the early afternoon, drinking fast before retreating to the cover of the remaining nearby shrubs and bushes to rest. Others arrive under the cover of darkness, silent ghosts crossing the road, the moonlight rays reflecting a silvery dust shroud around their dark silhouettes.
In the chaos of the travel, some elephants calves get lost. In the morning they are wandering aimlessly on the edge of the flood plain. I see no carcasses here, so I assume they rejoin their herds when they return. Maybe they follow the wrong herd in desperation, eventually dying alone under a dry terminalia out of sight.
Not only the elephants are stressed. The cattle are struggling and people are less tolerant. Every now and then the tension erupts and someone gets hurt.
Next to the road near Gunostoga a man was cutting meat from an elephant cow and a very small elephant calf. They were shot two days ago. Most of the meat was already missing yesterday. First people, then the hyenas, vultures and village dogs took their turns. This morning only the bones, pieces of skin and the flies remained. And the vultures and marabou storks, were waiting under the trees for the next opportunity.
It was reported the cow and calf did not cross the road to the water. It is difficult to say why she stopped there. It is likely that a racing vehicle or people walking separated her from her herd. Anxiety and fear spiraled into aggression, preventing the normal pedestrian traffic to pass her rage. Somebody said she also killed a bovine cow. Officers from the Department were called and they shot both. The shots ended her rage, ended the fear of the small calf and saving it from whatever motherless future was waiting ahead. Soon they will only be scattered bones, like the many others around the villages, harsh reminders of sporadic eruptions.
Despite the tension, life moves on. Often slow, often pausing, often waiting. Waiting for rain, waiting for the flood water, waiting for grazing and browsing, waiting for the crops. This year it is also waiting for the election.
Life here is typical of the remote communities living with wildlife. Distant advice is abundant, local resolve is limited. Most of the creatures and people involved are caught in a situation where none had part in the cause of the demise and few have a say in the solution. They are blissfully unaware of the trophy hunting debate, or the Trevor Noahs and their satires. All they know is what was and what should be. They try to stay happy, stay hopefull, try to survive as best they can. Hoping that the election will bring change. That the wind will bring rain, the river will bring floods and hunting will remove the elephants. Little do they know that the tragedy is growing. Little do they know even God is pondering.