A riveting, eight-part documentary podcast, featuring South Africa’s Wild Bird Trust founder and zoologist, Dr. Steve Boyes, entitled ‘Guardians of the River’ has won a Jackson Wild Award in the Podcast Category, after recently winning Best Narrative Nonfiction Podcast Award at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. The submissions included over 750 entries from more than 30 countries. The podcast is narrated by the ever-enthusiastic Cat Jaffee from House of Pod who leads listeners through some of the most unexplored regions of Angola and Botswana along the Okavango River as she unpacks the science and intricacies behind the geopolitcs.
The story starts back in 2012 after a chance encounter between Boyes and a National Geographic filmmaker. Boyes had been living and working in the Okavango Delta at the time conducting his PhD on Meyer’s Parrot. This encounter and Boyes’ love for the Delta would lead him on a journey that would ensure it remained protected into future generations. Four years, eight river expeditions, numerous storytelling and conservation media productions and several events later, it was in November 2019 when the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP), in conjunction with the Wild Bird Trust, collaborated with House of Pod who began recording the project’s first podcast, ‘Guardians of the River.’
Angolan biologist and host of the podcast, Kerllen Costa, brings to life the many characters the team meets along this intimate journey that begins in the heart of Angola’s most remote and landmined areas. From the illusive Savannah or ‘Ghost’ Elephants of Angola; Mukisi, a mythical creature that guards the water; the story of Mr Waterl who survived an encounter with an elephant ; and Kerllen’s own dramatic interaction with a group of hippos during a Mokoro expedition.
The story follows Boyes, as he leads a team of scientists and conservationists assembled from Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. What they discover, Boyes describes as, a near pristine environment, untouched by the outside world – largely due to the grim protection of landmines, derelict roads, and an abandoned airstrip. The scars of twenty-seven years of civil war can still be seen. With most of the elephants gone, wildlife displaced and people returning, the beautiful and fertile landscapes rich in resources now lie mostly unprotected, vulnerable to threats like deforestation, uncontrolled fire, rising commercial bushmeat trade, and unchecked development.
The Okavango Basin spans 3 countries; Angola, Namibia and Botswana and is made up of the many rivers that then feed into the Okavango Delta in Botswana. It’s eastern source rivers all have source lakes which feed the rivers steadily year round, something very unique in this part of Africa. None of the Okavango Basin’s water reaches the ocean. It’s also the main source of water for a million people and one of the most biodiverse places in Africa. The Delta itself is a protected area and is one of the world’s largest wetlands teaming with wildlife; an oasis of biodiversity. It supports the world’s largest remaining elephant population as well as lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, hundreds of species of birds, and the ancient customs and tribal belief systems of the people who inhabit its shores. This is the treasure of wilderness the Wild Bird Trust, a small South African non-profit, are protecting by every means possible, through partnership and long-term commitment to sustainable development with local communities.
Each episode unpacks the intrinsic connection humans have to the river and wildlife and how to go about protecting it, as a lesson to current and future conservationists in the audience. Many tribes in Botswana are still reeling from conservation mistakes of the past. Laws preventing people from freely accessing the river and the animals for basic survival has resulted in generational poverty. Today, many still don’t benefit from the mass tourism sector that has put Botswana and the Okavango Delta on the map.
“We have the chance to make things right for the people of Angola, so that everyone benefits from tourism, conservation, and development in that region. It’s important to protect the water and the wildlife but we need to draw on the ancient knowledge and wisdom of the local people to ensure it’s done respectfully and proportionally.” Says Dr. Steve Boyes, founder of the Wild Bird Trust.
It’s this approach that makes ‘Guardians of the River’ so incredibly unique and fascinating to listen to. It brings to life the sights and sounds of the Okavango, its animals and people and gives local tribes the chance to finally be heard and participate in one of the world’s most important conservation initiatives.
“Our goal is to help sustainable development in Angola regain the last forty years. The country is rich in diversity beginning with the water and with little protection currently in place, we aim to assist the government by acting as a mediator between them and the local people who need the river for survival. This is in essence where Angola’s riches lie. Through this podcast and other initiatives, we hope to bring much needed international attention to attract conservation efforts, education, and funding. The HALOTrust has been working in Angola for the last thirty years trying to remove all its landmines. While it still has some way to go, it won’t be too long before all the landmines are cleared and the animals and people return, with the threat of industrial development not far behind. Therefore, education is going to be vital in the years to come,” continues Boyes.
For the locals to appreciate just how rich their land is, requires education, which is also the key to establishing a thriving conservation economy. ‘Guardians of the River’ unpacks this very important topic and reveals the plans of Koketso Mookodi also known as Koki. She is the Botswana Country Director for the NGOWP and just like many of Botswana’s children, she wasn’t taught about the Okavango Delta at school. The lack of education is why there are so few local biologists and scientists, but with Koki’s plan that is all about to change.
To listen to how the story unfolds, and what plans Koki has to empower the people of Botswana so Angola can learn from its mistakes, please listen to ‘Guardians of the River’ by visiting https://www.wildbirdtrust.com/guardians-of-the-river