What's an AquaRAP?
AquaRAP is short for Aquatic Rapid Assessment Program. The program is designed to quickly collect, analyze, and disseminate scientific data on freshwater aquatic ecosystems for use in conservation planning. Field expeditions typically last only three to four weeks, while data analysis and report preparation is expected within six to eight months after the expedition.
An AquaRAP surveys such taxonomic groups as fishes, macro-crustaceans, aquatic insects, aquatic plants, and plankton. AquaRAP also studies water chemistry and hydrology. It focuses on entire watersheds, studying the biological diversity, degree of endemism, uniqueness, and ecological connections.
Scientists then make recommendations about the conservation priority level based on the risk of extinction of the area on national and global scales. Scientists carefully choose specific survey sites by consulting satellite imagery before a trip and then by conducting in-country overflights. In the field, they survey focal taxonomic groups as well as indicator species, taxa whose presence can help identify a habitat type or its condition. As a conservation tool, an AquaRAP provides a primarily qualitative assessment and precedes long-term scientific inventory and research by establishing the basis for such programs.
Why are scientists focusing on the Okavango Delta?
The Okavango Delta is the world's second largest wetland, containing unique terrestrial and aquatic species, intricate connections between water and land, and amazing seasonal flooding cycles. It is a key regional resource, spanning four countries and supporting over 150,000 people. In addition to acting as a water regulator in an arid region, the delta attracts large-scale migrations of animals and many endangered species, making this a wilderness of global biological significance. Many fish species migrate long distances along the river system between Angola, Namibia, and Botswana.
The aquatic ecosystems provide freshwater, food, transportation, and habitat for local and regional communities as well as for wildlife. Overfishing, pollution, introduced species, low flood levels, growing tourism, increasing local populations, and widespread insecticide spraying have increasingly impacted the aquatic ecosystems of the Okavango Delta over the last few years. This has created an urgent need to assess the status of the aquatic ecosystems throughout the delta. Plans to divert water from the Okavango River upstream from the delta threaten to drastically change the ecosystem.
What species will the biologists study?
While most of the large terrestrial mammals of the Okavango Delta are well known and well studied, the aquatic organisms of the delta have received much less attention. The aquatic ecosystems are very complex and can change yearly depending on annual flood levels. The AquaRAP team will conduct rapid surveys of aquatic organisms, including fishes, invertebrates, and plants, and will evaluate water quality and geomorphology. They will also study a few terrestrial groups, including plants and insects, to determine connections between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
What will be done with data collected?
The team will be able to compare its results to previous studies conducted by AquaRAP team members and others. This will enable them to document changes in the aquatic resources of the delta that have occurred over the last 12 years and to make recommendations regarding the conservation and management of these critical resources, for implementation by the CI group in Okavango and other local NGOs and governmental groups. In addition, data collected by the AquaRAP team will be used to establish a long-term monitoring program for the region.
What is life like on the expedition?
Scientists will be living under primitive conditions during the expedition, camping along the river's edge most nights. They will carry standard first-aid equipment and have radios and satellite phones while in the field. To avoid two of the delta's dangers and hazards-crocodiles and boating accidents-scientists will be encouraged to stay out of crocodile-infested waters and wear life jackets in the boats.
IN DEPTH: Be sure to read the field dispatches to learn more about life on the expedition.