"I was born in Botswana and grew up at a lodge in the bush, so this is where I feel most at home," Mike Chase explained as we drove to his research camp down the sandy road from the Khwai airstrip on the eastern side of the Okavango.
Between the airstrip and the camp we met some of Mike's neighbors - zebra, giraffe, lechwe, baboons and an incredible array of birds. And elephants, the focus of Mike's research. His camp is housed at an abandoned safari lodge that once had a pool and luxury accommodations including fireplaces in each room.
|| "No one's been up there for decades and you should see how many elephants there are there"|
But Mike really lives simply. He has to, to some extent. The plumbing and electricity no longer function at camp but that's not a problem since Mike spends most of his days studying elephants. The day we arrived, he and his assistants (CI staff and volunteers) had been on overflights all morning counting herds to the north. Even at night, Mike is busy entering data and downloading the latest coordinates of the first group of elephants he collared.
"It's been exciting these past few weeks. We've done overflights in areas of the Caprivi Strip and southern Angola to count elephants. No one's been up there for decades and you should see how many elephants there are there," said Mike, his eyes glimmering.
The Caprivi Strip is a sliver of land claimed by Namibia, surrounded by Botswana, Zambia and Angola. You might miss it on a map but its size can't describe the enormous importance and potential this land is to conservationists. No one's been there to do conservation work for years because of war in Angola, which spilled across to the Caprivi Strip in recent years.
Water is the greatest gift to this strip of land. Africa's fourth largest water system, the Zambezi River, flows through the Caprivi Strip on its way to Victoria Falls. It's a huge draw for elephants during the dry season. It also attracts many of Africa's other wildlife making it a desirable location for tourism development. Done with sufficient understanding for the dependencies wildlife has on the Strip and its resources, tourism might be a viable way to sustain this rich area.
"So, this is just the beginning really," Mike explains. "We need a better understanding of where elephants go. By collaring them, we have a unique opportunity to understand how, when and where elephants travel which will certainly impact the way we design conservation strategies in the region to accommodate them and all the species that depend on the same habitat that they do. And we need to act quickly so that conservation can be made a priority when the pressures of development hit this area."
"You might call me a workaholic but I have a passion for what I'm doing."
Mike Chase is conducting his research with the support of CI and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he's working on a Ph.D.
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