Thursday, June 25, 2009

Peterhouse Expedition to Makgadikgadi revisited

If you were born in Botswana in the past 20 years, you would find it difficult to believe that the lower Boteti River, from Khumaga down to Sokwane and beyond, was virtually perennial prior to 1990, with water year-round, substantial reedbeds and flourishing riparian woodland. All that remains today is an insignificant, dry channel terminating in a parched dustbowl in the south-western part of the Makgadikgadi Pans.

In order to appreciate how the area looked prior to its desiccation, you need to journey back in time. This is well worth doing, since the water flow in the Okavango system, which feeds into the Boteti, is returning to higher levels, and it is entirely conceivable that the river will once again reach this area, restoring it to a rich biodiverse wetland.

With this in mind, I managed to track down copies of the Peterhouse Natural History Society journals in the Peter Smith collection in the library at the Okavango Research Centre. For a month every year between 1966 and 1971, a group of schoolchildren from Peterhouse School in Zimbabwe visited the Makgadikgadi Pans to research and document the fauna of this – then little-known – area. These were no ordinary school jollies, although I have little doubt that the participants enjoyed themselves immensely – the children collected valuable scientific information including mammal and bird specimens, compiled checklists and found and documented many bird nests. Their reports make fascinating reading, and are a valuable contribution to our understanding of the avifauna here at the time of Botswana’s Independence.

Here are a few interesting highlights:

· Goliath Heron – a number seen along the river at Khumaga
· African Fish-Eagle – very common along river at Sokwane (also breeding here)
· Black Crake – very common along river
· Wattled Crane – seen along river
· African Mourning Dove – common in riverine woodland
· Coppery-tailed Coucal – common near river, in reedbeds
· Giant Kingfisher – quite common along river at Sokwane
· White-rumped (Hartlaub’s) Babbler – common all along river

Standing in the dry riverbed at Sokwane today, it is very difficult to visualize these birds here! We look forward to the return of the river, and to see to what extent they recolonise the area.

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