A mosaic of wild things in wild places.
Beyond the harsh terrains, forlorn desertscapes and awe-inspiring vistas, life blooms in often unlikely places. Undisturbed and unimpeded, nature has a strong foothold in the nooks and crannies, across the savannahs and among the acacia bushlands. Endemic, migratory, small numbers or large herds. This is where wild things roam. Game, plants and birds thrive in Namibia’s wilderness. A story of life flourishing at its most natural.
The terrain may shift like the changing of the winds, but one thing that remains constant is that Namibia is home to incredibly healthy populations of wildlife. Lions, elephant, rhino, leopard, cheetah, giraffe, plains game – they can all be spotted with backgrounds of either dunes, salt pans, acacia bushland or riverine woodlands.
From our world-famous national park, a radiant jewel and our country’s crowning glory, to the lesser-known yet equally vibrant north-eastern reaches: Namibia is a haven for wildlife, birds and plants, on par with our peers or even far surpassing them. Bouncing back from a period where the emphasis was placed more on what you could take from the natural world than what you could learn from it, this young land has since become a beacon of success in terms of conservation. “The greatest wildlife recovery story ever told,” has been splashed across headlines the world over.
It is part of the identity of a nation. A drawcard and trophy. Namibia is a pure, unblemished and beautifully preserved symbol of the natural world.
The shimmering mirage of Etosha Pan seems unreal. The vast white pan stretches out to infinity. Their low bass rumble is heard first. And then, as if appearing from nowhere, a dark silhouette interrupts the landscape of nothingness. Behind her, the matriarch, follows a family of lumbering giants. Elephants thrive here. And even more so in the northeast. They trek through forest, across floodplains and wetlands. Traversing rivers, our human-made borders are nothing to them. Renegade gypsy wanderers across five nations.
What does nature look like? Nature is green. That’s the global collective thinking, right? And sure enough, despite the image you may have developed of Namibia’s desert status, nature is green here, too. After summer showers, fresh neon green springs from the earth and the ends of acacia branches. Even pushing through desert sands toward the light to coat dunes in grassy blankets. Etosha in the summer is so green it’s a shock to the system. And our north-eastern wilderness areas, the Mangetti and Khaudum, are encompassed in thickly packed green swathes of bushland. From there, shades of green become the predominant colour scope. In the north-eastern wetlands the green is dark and rich. A splendid juxtaposition to the rest of Namibia. The shades stretch upwards into towering Mangosteen and Leadwood trees. Reflected by the light green, reed-lined rivers below. The dappled sunlight in the lofty textured canopy of a tall Jackalberry overhead.
What does nature sound like? It is a joyful chorus of laughter. All around. The fun, busy chatter of the babblers and scimitarbills in the trees. The giggle of a zebra. The deep belly grunt of a hippo. Huh huh huh. The chuckling of a troupe of baboons in the canopies above. The rumbling tambour of one hundred elephants at the water’s edge. The iconic guffaw and cackle of a hyena in the darkness. A growl or roaring call of a lioness that resounds across the landscape from kilometres away. A fish eagle’s cry to the east. Wind rustles through the grassy floodplains. A beautiful natural chime. The song of nature that never falls silent.
What does nature taste like? Like morning mist on waterways, and afternoon breezes across dry plains. Like dusty plumes as herds of mammals disrupt the earth. Petrichor after the first rains.
What does nature feel like? Like absolute freedom. Like wonder and a constant sense of rebirth. New beginnings and bittersweet cycles of life. It feels familiar and wonderfully fresh all at the same time, and each sunrise or sunset, each herd of pronking springbok, each flap of a bee-eater wing, each ancient tree or flowering acacia bush feels like a memory you’ve had with you all along or one that you’ve just captured to keep in your soul.
Life happens here at the pace of the rivers. Okavango. Kwando. Zambezi. Chobe. Linyanti. At the pace of the bright red sun as its sinks into the horizon clogged by dust and smoke. At the sauntering gait of a massive elephant as it swaggers across a vast pan. The sleek prowl of a powerful cat. The meander of a stately gemsbok as he grazes across the land. That is the rhythm of nature here. Let that sense of calm wash over you and allow your heart to slow down to the pace of life here.
Wild. Untamed. A natural mosaic of wild things in wild places. A population recovery story like no other. Here, nature is king and we are her humble subjects. Our people call wildlife their neighbours and friends. They live among them and abide by nature’s rules as far as possible. It’s not an easy way of life, but the value of nature is understood and celebrated. Nature is life.
Today the world is a strange place. Everything has come to a sort of standstill. But here the Okavango River is still flowing. The wind still rustles through the leaves of the camel thorn tree and the elephant still comes down to the water’s edge to quench his thirst. To him the world spins on the same axis and nothing much has changed. It is only our realities that have shifted. Our perception of the universe altered. Where we react through artificial face coverings and our moods are determined by the ebb and flow of ‘positive or negative’ statistics on a human-made list. Nature goes on and nothing much has changed. There are fewer engines that disrupt the gentle rhythmic pulse of mother earth. There are less tyres on gravel roads, and spews of gas from flying tin cans and less feet on the ground that leave behind a carbon footprint we could never erase no matter how many extra trees we plant. But there are moments still that leave you in awe of a world so beautiful and precious that it is worth fighting for. That it is worth learning from and preserving for a generation that will maybe know or maybe not know what it was like to live in fear of not seeing a spectacular sunrise in the morning… with an elephant silhouette to reiterate the sound knowledge that today I get to start and hopefully end my day in the majesty of Namibia’s version of nature…
With well over 400 of the country’s bird species occurring in Namibia’s Kavango and Zambezi regions, the northeast is among the most popular destinations for avid birders. Notable species include raptors such as the iconic African Fish Eagle, waterbirds like the Slaty Egret, Goliath Heron, African Darter, African Skimmer, Greater Swamp-warbler, and Swamp Boubou. Among other noteworthy species are black, coppery-tailed and Senegal coucals, the Wattled Crane and Rosy-throated Longclaw, as well as a variety of kingfishers and bee-eaters. In the backwaters and swamps, the African Pygmy-goose and Comb Duck, Allen’s Gallinule, and the African and the Lesser Jacana can be found. The largest known colony of Carmine Bee-eaters (pictured) in Africa nest on the banks of the Zambezi River from August each year. Their colourful display will leave you in awe.
The Etosha Pan was born from a drying lake that filled up with sediment and was shaped by the scouring effects of wind erosion. Wind is the pan’s creative force, boosted by the absence of protective vegetation. A series of waterholes along the southern edge of the pan draws herds of plains game, elephant, rhino, giraffe, predators and birds, making it one of the most varied and prolific wildlife experiences in Africa. The park is also a pivotal part of Namibia’s incredible wildlife recovery story. In its more than a century of existence, Etosha has always been a wildlife haven. Other than the Big Four (elephant, rhino, lion and leopard), Etosha is home to 642 species of terrestrial vertebrates.
From the eastern bank of the Okavango River, the Kavango East and the Zambezi Region stretch out like a finger all the way to Impalila Island where Namibia borders Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. These northeastern regions contain five perennial rivers and are known for large populations of elephant and buffalo which congregate along these waterways during the dry winter months. The northeast is rich in other wildlife as well, thanks to the varied habitats which include broad-leafed and acacia woodlands, mopane forests, riverine forests, grasslands and floodplains.
One of Namibia’s claims to fame is the fact that it is home to the largest cheetah population in the world. An estimated 1,500 of southern Africa’s approximately 4,000 free-ranging cheetahs live in Namibia. The distribution of the fastest land animal has been reduced to just 9% of its historical range across Africa. It is thought that cheetahs are currently found in only 29 countries, often in small, fragmented populations. Namibia thus remains a stronghold of these sleek felines, probably accounting for around 20% of the remaining global population.
There are five national parks in the Kavango West, Kavango East and Zambezi regions. Mangetti and Khaudum are wild and unexplored – home to wildlife such as elephant, roan and sable antelope and notably healthy populations of African wild dog. Bwabwata straddles the Okavango River with its Mahangu and Buffalo Core Areas, and then continues for more than 150 km until it reaches the Kwando River. Mudumu is further south, on the eastern bank of the Kwando, and is popular due to the riverine habitat created by the channels of the river. Namibia’s largest wetland area with conservation status is Nkasa Rupara National Park. It is an important corridor for elephants moving from Botswana to Angola and Zambia and it houses the largest concentration of buffaloes in the country.
The Zambezi Region lies in the heart of KAZA, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which is the largest conservation area of its kind worldwide. The region is known for its massive herds of migratory elephants. The total elephant population is estimated to be almost 50 000. KAZA is not Namibia’s only transfrontier park: there is also /Ai-/Ais-Richtersveld in the soulful south, and in the far north-western reaches we share the rugged Iona Skeleton Coast with Angola.
Formerly referred to as the Caprivi, the Kavango and Zambezi regions are a fertile wilderness of riverine forests, flood plains, swamps and open woodlands created by a complex network of rivers and relatively high summer rainfall. Starting with the Okavango River in the western part of the ‘strip’, the Kwando, Linyanti, Chobe and Zambezi rivers to the east are sources of life that result in a surprisingly wet and lush juxtaposition to the otherwise semi-arid and arid landscapes in the rest of Namibia. Interestingly, the Chobe River is one of the few rivers in the world that can flow in both directions, depending on water levels.
Namibia is fortunate to have extraordinarily healthy populations of big cats. Lions, which were virtually hunted to extinction 100 years ago, have made a tremendous comeback. According to the AfriCat Foundation, there are between 500 to 800 wild lions left in Namibia today, found in the Kunene Region, in Etosha and in the north-eastern parts of Khaudum, the Nyae-Nyae Conservancy and along the rivers bordering Botswana. A national leopard census completed in 2019 showed a “best guess” population of around 11 700 leopards, based on combined sources. However, human-wildlife conflict continues as a result of these predator populations. Lions on communal farmland in the northwest and northeast, and leopards on commercial farmland are causing problems for livestock. Mitigation and conservation practices are in place throughout the country to help ensure the future success of these carnivores, and to support the people who choose to live with wildlife on a daily basis.