Why we travel: Levison Wood on walking with elephants in Botswana

Setting out from the Zimbabwe border, the adventurer, author and broadcaster spent a month on the front line of elephant conservation, walking alongside a herd as it followed its annual migration route towards the Okavango Delta.

Thursday, July 2, 2020,
By Levison Wood
Chobe National Park, Botswana, provides a migration corridor for elephants to protected areas in the north ...

Chobe National Park, Botswana, provides a migration corridor for elephants to protected areas in the north east.

Photograph by Getty Images

Last summer, I travelled to Botswana. It was a trip with a purpose: to try to understand more about the iconic African elephant and the efforts being made to protect it. I’ve been involved with elephant conservation for some years now, becoming an ambassador for the charity Tusk Trust in 2013 after I walked the length of the River Nile. It was while doing this that I saw with my own eyes the reality of conservation on the front line.

Setting out from the Zimbabwe border, I spent a month living and breathing elephants. I walked alongside a herd as it followed its annual migration route towards the Okavango Delta in search of food, water and breeding partners. With me was Kane, a member of the local San community. He’d spent his whole life living in the bush, being surrounded by wildlife and learning the skills required to survive. Immersed in a potentially dangerous environment, I had to put my entire trust into his hands. 

“I walked the length of the River Nile, where I saw with my own eyes the reality of conservation on the front line.”

by Levison Wood

Through Kane, I met many villagers, farmers and other local people who live alongside elephants. While Africa’s populations of elephants have plummeted, human populations across the continent have skyrocketed, increasing the need for farmland and resulting in human encroachment into animal habitats. Human-elephant conflict is one of the biggest factors in the declining elephant numbers, much more than trophy hunting or poaching.

My views on elephant protection used to be pretty simple: the bad guys were the ones killing elephants for the tusks, and the good guys were the people out there trying to stop it and save them. But the people I met in the villages and farms along our journey weren’t bad or unsympathetic people; they were struggling to feed their families and make a livelihood. A herd of marauding elephants eating crops, destroying fences or threatening people were a direct and real danger. The complexity of elephant conservation is that of humans and elephants needing the same stretches of land to live. Kane had a neat take on it all: “If you love elephants so much,” he said, “why don’t you take some back to England and put them in the Queen’s parks? See how long they last.”

Adventurer, author and broadcaster Levison Wood is an ambassador for the Tusk Trust. 

Photograph by Levison Wood

At one point during our search for the magnificent beasts, Kane suddenly put a finger to his lips. I listened intently and heard a faint, deep rumble. His eyes lit up. “Lions,” he whispered. “Over there in the long grass. They’ve got a kill. Follow me.” And with that, he tiptoed directly towards the noise, holding mothing more than his spear for safety.

As we emerged out of a thicket, true to his word, we discovered a dying buffalo on its last legs, being gorged on by three fully grown male lions. “When I was a child,” Kane said, pointing to the brutal scene, “we’d wait for the lions to have their fair share then go and help ourselves to some meat. Are you hungry?”

I thought he was joking, but apparently not. Motioning for me to follow him, we sneaked up to the lions until we were just three metres away. Standing up quickly as they noticed us, the animals grunted. There was a tense stand-off, and I wondered what madness had possessed me to follow this man towards the jaws of Africa’s biggest predator.

Then, suddenly, the cats turned and ran to the shade of a nearby tree, almost as if to say, ‘Go on then, if you must.’ We crept up to the dead buffalo and inspected the carcass, as the lions looked on nonchalantly. Kane shrugged and grinned. “We know how to live with animals,” he said, with the air of a philosopher. “If you want to save them, you have to work with the locals.”

Adventurer, author and broadcaster Levison Wood is an ambassador for the Tusk Trust. Walking with Elephants, a three-part Channel 4 documentary set in Botswana, aired in May. The accompanying book, The Last Giants: The Rise and Fall of the African Elephant is on sale now.

Read more tales from our Why We Travel cover story

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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