Home to the largest concentration of African elephants in the world, Chobe National Park is Botswana's most ecologically diverse reserve and promises some of the best wildlife viewing on the African continent.
With commercial hunting banned earlier this year and poaching fiercely policed, life as an elephant couldn't be better. Hordes of other species thrive here too, with everything from endangered wild dogs and sable antelope, to indigenous birdlife and huge herds of buffalo enjoying the sanctuary of Botswana's safe havens. It all sounded too good to be true, so I visited earlier this year to see for myself …
'Elephant' my friend Cathy yelped, pointing to the side of the road as we bounced up and down in the back of a four-by-four. 'And another!' she exclaimed a minute later. En route to Chobe, we were still on the main road but, here in Botswana, wildlife roams freely beyond the reserve borders.
Five elephant sightings later, our driver turned off the road. He cut the engine and spun around to face us: "river cruise," he beamed.
Grabbing our binoculars we boarded an open-sided boat and set sail along the Chobe River, which runs through the park's northern reaches. Delicate impala sipped by the waterside and pink-eared hippos sunk into the river like submarines; Nile crocodiles snoozed by the banks and huge fish eagles soared in the blue sky above.
"Elephants," our guide stated in a low voice, gesturing towards the horizon at what looked like a village of mud-grey houses rising from the wetlands. As we drifted closer I saw that the village was moving – a herd of twenty elephants was plodding across the plains.
Nearer to the boat we spotted a lone elephant about to cross the river, so the boat chugged a little closer and pulled up at the bank. As the adolescent sank up to his belly I sat in silence listening to the slosh of water as he waded across. In hushed tones, our guide explained how young males leave their original herd at around 12 years old and wander nomadically, searching for mates.
After lunch in a riverside lodge, we jumped back in the jeep and drove deeper into the park. As we rattled along dusty tracks we saw curly-horned kudos, skittish jackals and doe-eyed giraffes who flicked their lashes at us as they munched on tall trees. But, again, the overriding theme was elephants. Everywhere we went we saw them: standing and scratching, drinking and dozing, walking and wading … you name it.
Later that day, when our jeep was surrounded by a huge herd of buffalo, we had to pinch our noses at their musty, musky smell and bat away the swarms of flies that buzzed around them. Next we spotted a leopard snoozing high in an acacia tree and, as the sun began to dip, we joined scores of baboons to watch the sun set across bird-filled wetlands.
With the light fading fast we drove towards our base for the night – an unfenced camp, deep the heart of the reserve. Minutes from our campsite, our path was blocked by a pride of ten lions lying across the jeep track. As I clambered over the seats to get a better view, the largest black-maned male opened his jaws and revealed a set of sharp teeth with five-inch canines. "Better not stay too long," our guide warned, turning the engine back on and driving away.
That night, after dinner and drinks around the campfire, I cozied into my sleeping bag and fell asleep to the sound of elephants chomping and stomping in the trees behind my tent.
Another side to the story
Chobe is one of the elephant world's brightest jewels. More than 70,000 are thought to populate the park – a figure's that rises by around five per cent each year. Success is felt beyond Chobe too, with a further 80,000 or so elephants dispersed throughout Botswana. These are some of the largest African elephants on the continent but exact figures are difficult to pin down, as the elephants roam freely between neighbouring countries.
With wildlife prioritised in Botswana, I was curious as to the impact the elephants had on local people. Where humans and wildlife live side by side, there's always the potential for conflict: in England we complain of foxes raiding our bins – what if you had elephants in your back yard?
As we drove back out of the park the following morning we spotted yet more elephants by the side of the main road, grazing near people's homes and skirting their gardens. When I asked our driver if they caused any problems he nodded his head slowly.
"They raid the fields," he explained. "Some people have stopped farming because of it."
He hinted at other problems too: damaged equipment, broken fences and, occasionally, physical harm to humans. Protected under conservation laws, the locals are unable to harm or aggravate them and, as a result, the elephants have relaxed their fear of humans; nowadays, traditional tactics such as banging pots together do little to scare them away.
Farmers who do manage to grow their crops here are forbidden to sell them to EU markets, where other farmers in Botswana often make their best profits. With foot and mouth disease thought to be transmitted by buffalo, the land around Chobe falls into a 'non-export zone,' so Chobe farmers are restricted to selling in local markets or simply farming to just feed their families.
Similar issues are experienced elsewhere in Botswana, as around forty per cent of the country's land is subject to conservation and export laws. And within the protected areas, traditional methods of exploiting and utilising resources such as fishing, mining and forestry are also restricted.
Aware of the conflict this conservation causes, the state provides subsidies to counter some of the issues faced by farmers near Chobe and other national parks.
Money and outreach programmes are implemented in the Chobe region, and support through education and job creation is also in place. In some cases, the subsidies are significant enough that farmers can farm minimally or look for other job opportunities.
Tourism is an obvious avenue for locals to move into, and many people have made a hugely successful living doing so. Educated guides, linguists and wildlife experts have particularly good prospects, but there are also job opportunities for cooks, porters, cleaners and lodge hosts.
However, many locals who have inherited generations-worth of farming expertise may lack the skills and education to enter the tourist industry easily. In many cases, wealth doesn't trickle down to the poorer locals, with many safari companies backed or controlled by wealthy foreign investors.
An environmental paradise like Chobe is, of course, something to be celebrated and we should relish this rare example of where a wilderness area is thriving. Botswana is hugely proud of its conservation programmes and Chobe is an international beacon of its success.
However, appreciating the bigger picture is something that, in my opinion, we now need to start recognising more as tourists. In order for Botswana's wildlife and people to both achieve long-term sustainability, it's vital that we find ways for our human and natural worlds to thrive together.