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Why Lake Ngami is claiming lives

Over loading of passengers by operators

When the mighty Lake Ngami is mentioned, most people recall the occasional drowning cases that recently associated with the Lake. Boat accidents have claimed several lives of visitors, boat operators and fishermen. The police have attempted to map what could be causing the accidents. On the other hand tourism officials and conservation officials emphasise the importance of the revered site.

In 2014 alone, Sehithwa Police recorded eight cases of drowning in Lake Ngami. According to the Station Commander, Zakes Masike explains that most the deaths are a result of boat accidents occasioned by waves that overpower the boat; excessive overloading of passengers; and also using the boat whilst under the influence of alcohol.

Police reports indicate that victims of drowning occasionally involve fish traders – but most of the accidents involve people who are new to the lake. Police say people come to explore the lake, “but sadly without knowledge of the dangers that the lake could potentially cause, visitors end up becoming victims to drowning,” said the station commander.

 However there is an opposite and debatable argument as to what could be causing the loss of lives. For traditionalists and elders from surrounding villages the main causes of drowning at the lake is the complete disregard of believes and cultural practices that should be performed before one embarked on a journey to the Lake Ngami. Elders stress that for visitors to explore the lake without any danger of drowning its advisable that they pass through traditional healers or leaders of the village to protect them against evil spirits believed to be in control of the lake.

Located at the southern edge of the North West district about 100km from Maun, Lake Ngami lies in the Okavango Delta Ramar Site within Ngamiland. It is situated within a shallow sedimentary depression at the distal end of the Okavango Delta. According to Management Plan for Lake Ngami (MPLN) during the 1980’s and 1990’s the lake was a dry basin which only experienced occasional inflows from the Kunyere and Nhabe rivers.  

But since the start of the recent high flood phase in the Okavango system in 2004, the lake has steadily filled and forecast reports point to a possibility of the lake carrying water for the next couple of decades. The area is currently concentrated in six main villages of Bodibeng, Bothathogo, Sehithwa, Toteng, Kareng and Legothwana which fall under the jurisdiction of Maun Administrative Authority (MAA).

The dark side of people drowning at the Lake worries tourism officials because they believe that it is somehow clouding its natural beauty. They believe that these misfortunes kill the essential tourism element of the lake to. Tourism resources of the Lake relate primarily to birdlife viewing and fishing rather than wildlife.

The entire Lake Ngami has been identified by Birdlife Botswana as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The MPLN underscores that Lake Ngami is unique in Botswana and Southern Africa with respect to birdlife and states that there is no other comparable birding area in the region. IBA is a worldwide initiative aimed at identifying and protecting a global network of sites for the conservation of the world's birds and other biodiversity. According to Birdlife Botswana, twelve Important Bird Areas (IBAs) have been designated in Botswana which Lake Ngami is part of. These are birds considered threatened species listed as endangered, vulnerable or near threatened.

According to the Director of Birdlife Botswana Dr Kabelo Senyatso, Lake Ngami being an officially recognized Important Bird Area, the IBAs status to Botswana adds an extra value to the tourism destination of this country.

“Due to this status of Lake Ngami Botswana obviously benefits from the increase of tourists arrival to Lake Ngami,” he added.

Dr Senyatso also expressed concern about increasing cases of drowning at the Lake. He explains that it has a negative impact to the country’s tourism. He says the Lake is viewed as an unsafe area because of the frequent cases of drowning which have unfortunately resulted in deaths. He added that this has led to his office to presently not actively promote tourism to the site until it is developed in terms of bird viewing facility such as piers, a fence, or a bird-hide and well-resourced first-aid kits, as well as competent rescue teams in place.

Dr Senyatso calls on the government to invest both in development of the tourism infrastructure, and conservation of Lake Ngami in order to fully exploit its benefits.

Notwithstanding the controversial influx of Zambians and Congolese traders at the lake, residents around the lake have benefited much in terms of commercial fishing operations which is on the rise at the lake. Most locals engaged in the business of fishing there testify that Lake Ngami has now become a source of economic upgrade for many. They believe that if it were not of the recent influx of foreigners who have disturbed and caused commotion to their business, Lake Ngami could survive the hardship of environmental changes and benefit future families.

Commercial fishing in the lake is reported to have also fuelled a conflict of interest between the same life of birds reported by Birdlife Botswana and fish traders.

Birdlife Botswana Director, Dr Senyatso explains that a conflict of natural resources and artificial fishing facilities arise because fishermen and birds compete for the same fish/food resource. He says these events at the lake negatively impact on the birdlife. He added that the disturbance into the environmental cycle/food chain by human presence affect the normal behavior of the birds.  

MPLN informs that unmanaged movement within the lake by fishermen poses a threat to breeding birds because fishermen approach too close to their breeding sites causing them to fly away.

“Fishermen also unwittingly chase birds off nest by trying to feed them, but the dead fish they dump rots and causes birds to abandon the nests. Also this abandoned fishing nets sometimes filled with rotting fish are a threat because they trap birds and livestock,” reads the MPLN.  

Explaining what future environmental concerns at the lake might create, Dr Senyatso opines that it is unlikely that Lake Ngami could lose its status of being an IBA within the next five years or beyond.

“IBAs are designated based on long-term population trends of threatened bird species and the condition of habitats at the site, so we remain optimistic that these are improving, rather than being degraded.”

Senyatso advises that Botswana should minimize the negative impact and keep all the stakeholders’ attention on the benefit of Lake Ngami as a tourism destination. He explains that all the stakeholders including tourists, public and private sectors in the tourism industry, and communities residing near Lake Ngami should equally benefit from Lake Ngami.
 

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