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Africa Geographic Travel

Original source: Okavango Crocodile Research

I hear the email ping and it’s a message from Josh. It reads “Camped on a small jurassic isl in the Cuito River & found 5+ croc nests 1 which was this years with lots of empty eggshells AMAZING”.

Email from Josh Iremonger
An exciting satellite message from the Cuito River in Angola.

As part of Expedition Okavango, Josh Iremonger and Dan Dugmore are paddling from the source of the Okavango River in Angola down to the inland finishing point in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. The guys are doing this for a great cause and have offered to collect some crocodile specific information for us along the way. Our crocodile conservation programme is now 13 years old and any information from the upper reaches is essential to the long-term database that we manage.

Why was this message so important to us? What’s the big deal about crocodile nests in Angola?

Crocodile nests discovered in Angola
Female crocodile protecting her nest in an unprotected portion of river.

As a long-term research programme we understand that campaigns to protect areas require strong partnerships between many stakeholders. Recognition of “ground work” is essential and this is why we communicate with local organisations such as SAREP and OKACOM in Maun, Botswana. We were lucky to have carried out two separate biodiversity surveys in this catchment in 2012 and 2013 so we understand the current challenges that this region faces. Our work in these surveys established that the Cuito River is a suitable habitat for crocodile nesting, and we also managed to capture young crocodiles in this system, which led us to realise that nesting up in these areas was likely. We were, however, not able to confirm any nesting sites. What Josh and Dan have found are the first confirmed crocodile nesting sites in the Okavango catchment in Angola!

Crocodile nests found in Angola
While the Okavango Delta does have healthy crocodile numbers, this seasonal swamp does not provide suitable crocodile nesting habitat.

Crocodiles currently do not have the luxury of nesting in any protected areas in the Okavango, which is something that many people are not aware of. While you are likely to see large crocodiles in the protected Okavango Delta, you will not find any nests. 98% of the crocodile nesting sites are instead located along the unprotected Okavango Panhandle, and our research has shown a significant decrease in the number of nests along this stretch of river over the last 30 years.

Most crocodile nests in unprotected panhandle

Apart from the highly erratic Selinda Spillway, which connects the Okavango and Zambezi systems, the Okavango is a closed system. This means that if we do not protect this discovered nesting habitat, we may be threatening the existence of these ancient reptiles throughout the entire system.

This finding is primarily significant as there aren’t many nests along the Okavango River due to large and increasing human pressures such as fires, cattle grazing and general utilisation of the river.

crocodile nests threatened by fire
2015 fires along the Okavango Panhandle in Botswana. Fires remain a massive threat to crocodile nesting and this year we noted a number of nests destroyed by fire.

Secondly, the crocodile nests in Angola represent a “strength in diversity”. The way we see it is that, while there may be many negative points to having one incredible wilderness system spread over three countries, we think that it also lends itself to an equal amount of positives. If we are now able to say that the Okavango crocodile nests are spread over the three countries – Angola, Namibia and Botswana – that share this wetland system, then we see this as three different opportunities to protect nesting for the entire system. Crocodiles do not require passports to cross the borders, which means that if one of these nations is not able to manage this critical habitat then at least the crocodiles will still be able to successfully breed and nest in another portion. Organisations such as OKACOM aim to get all three nations to recognise the importance of unified management efforts. However, we all know that countries in Africa often play by their own rules. The nests in Angola, therefore, provide another option for the conservation of this species in the system, which is not just significant for the ecology of the species, but also the politics surrounding its management.

Species needs to be protected
The outline of a female crocodile in the grass shows this mothers commitment to guarding this nest site. The female will continue to protect this site for three months.

Josh and Dan have recently entered Botswana and will be paddling into the alluvial fan (semi-permanent swamp) of the Okavango Delta in the next day or two. After weeks of paddling on an incredible river system that stretches over three countries, they will only now be entering the first stretch of river that is formally protected as a wildlife conservation area. The world famous Okavango Delta is critically important to the economy of Botswana, but it remains vulnerable if the upper reaches of this incredible wilderness system are not protected. For now though, we celebrate the fact that the crocodile nesting range is larger than originally described, and we hope that the neighbouring countries will soon give these areas the protection they deserve.

Three countries of the Okavango Delta
The Okavango Basin is shared by three countries and dispersal of crocodile nests in each of the neighbouring nations is good news for the species.
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