Committed To Conservation

As the Lungwevungu River gets wider, the rapids get stronger and Kerllen Costa has to find the navigable lines to pass safely through.

Rolex, through its Perpetual Planet Initiative, is supporting a ground-breaking scientific initiative that explores the uncharted territories of Africa’s great rivers, the Great Spine of Africa series of expeditions, in collaboration with Steve Boyes, a prominent South African ornithologist and conservation biologist.

Boyes has dedicated his life to preserving Africa’s great wildernesses and the species that depend on them. A partner of the Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative, Boyes is the Chairman of the Wild Bird Trust, a National Geographic Explorer and Senior TED Fellow.

In the Great Spine of Africa series of expeditions, Boyes and a team of intrepid explorers will cover more than 40,000 kilometres, equivalent to circumnavigating the entire planet, to document and collect crucial information about the ecological health of these rivers.

Their discoveries will help protect the people and wildlife that depend on them, making it one of the most significant scientific expeditions of our time.

Over 20 million people in southern Africa, and countless species of plants and animals, rely on the rushing waters of the Zambezi River.

Steve Boyes and Kerllen Costa, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project Angola Country Director, lead this first expedition down the Lungwevungu River in their mekoro (dugout canoes) as part of this earlSteve Boyes and Kerllen Costa, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project Angola Country Director, lead this first expedition down the Lungwevungu River in their mekoro (dugout canoes) as part of this earl

The river’s marshy beginnings and its journey to the salt waters of the Indian Ocean are still largely unexplored by the scientific community. Studying its sources and unique ecosystems will enable scientists and local communities to safeguard these areas and the Zambezi River for future generations, enhancing resilience against the challenges of climate change.

Lungwevungu expedition

When Boyes embarked on his first expedition with the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP), he joined forces with a diverse team of experts and local community members to explore the remote south-eastern highlands of Angola.

Together, they made an astounding discovery: the “Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower”, a series of elevated forests and peatlands that receive abundant rainfall and play a crucial role in sustaining the rivers.

Despite the challenges of navigating these difficult terrains, their efforts paid off as they unearthed these critical ecosystems that could help combat the effects of climate change.

Steve Boyes using an advanced instrument to collect water quality data about the Lungwevungu River.Steve Boyes using an advanced instrument to collect water quality data about the Lungwevungu River.

“We discovered these vast peatlands that have incredible water storage capacity. Long periods of drought are going to come with climate change. This is the buffer. It is the lifeline,” said Boyes.

The Great Spine of Africa series of expeditions began in mid-2022 and builds upon this first NGOWP expedition, to develop these expeditions along the continent’s main rivers with the goal of better understanding and protecting Africa’s crucial waterways.

During their first expedition, Boyes and the team ventured into the remote Angolan highlands to explore the Lungwevungu River, a tributary that could hold the key to unlocking the Zambezi’s source.

Using traditional mekoro (dugout canoes) and state-of-the-art scientific equipment, the team collected extensive data on the river’s health and ecosystems.

Along their 900km route, they recorded human settlements and wildlife sightings, took environmental DNA samples from the water, and analysed the river’s structure, flow, and water quality. This exhaustive research is already beginning to reveal exciting discoveries that will help protect this vital waterway for generations to come.

“We believe we have demonstrated that the Lungwevungu is the most significant river source for the Zambezi itself,” said Boyes.

Ecologist and expedition team member, Rob Taylor, lays out a fyke net in order to count the fish species living in the river.Ecologist and expedition team member, Rob Taylor, lays out a fyke net in order to count the fish species living in the river.

The team employed continuous surveying and detailed monitoring, documenting the habitats with photography and drone footage every 10km. This rigorous baseline ensures that the work can be repeated at regular intervals in the future.

Measuring change over time will be essential for the researchers to enact policy change with governments.

“We believe that the water that we have documented for the first time in Angola is the largest expression of a water tower like this in the world. Now we are looking at an archipelago of these water towers all the way up Africa. There is a generation of work still to be done on these rivers, establishing baselines, so that we can protect them properly,” said Boyes.

Protecting the wilderness and its wildlife

Boyes’ passion for conservation was born from his experiences in the African wilderness among elephants, hyenas, and lions, and the ancient baobab trees. He believes that we need these last wild places to reconnect with who we really are, and it is our natural habitat too.

His research on the Meyer’s parrot led him to the Okavango Delta, Africa’s last remaining intact wetland, which was celebrated in 2014 as a World Heritage Site.

From 2010, Boyes and his team of researchers have poled themselves across the Delta annually in mekoro to conduct biodiversity surveys in this near-pristine wilderness, which is under pressure from threats such as overfishing, tourism, and irrigation for agricultural development.

Over the years, he has poled over 12,000km in the Okavango River Basin, often threatened by submerged hippos.

In 2015, Boyes launched what became known as the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, a multi-year effort aimed at exploring and protecting the little-known wilderness of the Angolan highlands, the Okavango Delta’s watershed. Without protection of the critical water sources that feed the Delta, its future is at risk.

In 2019, Boyes and his team were awarded the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year for their project, which discovered 18 undocumented source lakes, vast previously unknown peatlands, new populations of vulnerable species, and more than 140 species that are new to science.

Protecting the wilderness and its wildlife is only part of the mission. Working to save the rivers will represent long-term security from the impacts of global warming for the over 400 million people living in Africa’s major river basins and for the over two-thirds of all Africans that depend on the ecological services provided by these major drainages.

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