Wildlife in the Okavango Delta

“We were on the Jeep, and we were looking around us. We had just come to a stop. I just happened to look over the edge… and there was a wild cat right next to us. Nobody had spotted it – and it was just sat there, looking at us. And as quick as we saw it, it moved off.”
Debbie Grainger, from our wildlife adventure specialists Wildfoot, barely takes a breath while retelling her story of going on safari in the Okavango Delta. It’s like she’s still in that Jeep, peering over the edge.
You have to work to see wildlife… it’s a proper safari.
“I think it’s seeing the unexpected that makes it really special. We have travellers who have been to Kruger National Park and they are so spoilt because they’ve seen everything; it’s a bit like going through a safari park with a shopping list. Botswana isn’t like that. You have to work to see wildlife, but I really like that because it’s a proper safari. It is proper nature in the wild.”

Wild is about right – the Okavango Delta is home to some of the largest and most endangered animals in Africa: lions, cheetahs, African wild dogs, and both black and white rhinoceroses. Giraffe, zebra and the biggest herds of elephants on the planet also speckle the delta. They’re protected by a patchwork quilt of game reserves and national parks run by conservationists and communities.

Follow the leader

The Okavango Delta is one of the few places where you can go on a walking safari safely. Of course, there’s the obvious thought when you’re on foot in big cat country: what happens if you come across a lion?

“I’ll be honest with you,” says Debbie. “I was very nervous about doing it. The tour I did was in a private concession, so it meant that nobody else was going to be walking there apart from the people that were staying in my lodge. I think we were out walking by about 6.15am.

“We saw an impala – and all of a sudden this impala started running, and I said to my guide, ‘Do you think there’s something after it?’ So he said, ‘All right, I want you to stand very, very still and crouch down and just be as quiet as you can.’ The impala wasn’t particularly close to us, but we watched it run and about 2-3 seconds behind it was a wild dog on its own, and it was after this impala… Things like that are fantastic.”
So what would happen if you came across a lion? Almost certainly nothing. You’re under the guardianship of your Botswanan guide: the best and safest place to be. Most go to guiding school, sitting up to three years’ worth of exams. One of the guides Wildfoot works with has 14 years’ experience working at lodges and on mobile safaris.
“There isn’t a bird that they don’t know,” says Debbie. “They’re the little things that make so much difference, because you’re asking so many questions. And for the guide to be able to show you the bird in their book… Their knowledge is fantastic.
There isn’t a bird that they don’t know.
“You’re also looking for fresh droppings and footprints, so the guide explains to you what you’re looking for. Again, you’re so alert to what is going on around you – and only because the guide has told you, because you’re never going to know this; they have years of training.
“They’ll explain to you that those cheetah prints are only 15 minutes old, or the hyena droppings are 30 minutes old. They have these little charts with footprints on, so you can see the difference. When you’re looking at prints in the sand or in the mud, they look very similar to each other when it’s things like impalas and cats. Your guide explains what you’re looking for: whether it’s a long toe or two. Little things like that are invaluable.”
They get to know you very, very quickly so that they know what wildlife you want to see.
You’re usually assigned to a particular driver for your full stay at a lodge or campsite. “They get to know you very, very quickly so that they know what wildlife you want to see,” says Debbie. “If they’re based in that lodge then they know where the lions normally reside or where the cheetahs usually go. That’s the beauty of the lodges.”
If you’re moving between lodges and campsites throughout your holiday, a guide will travel with you the whole way. Their connections with people who work in the national parks in and around the Okavango Delta are better than a backpack full of guidebooks.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Okavango Delta or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Changing times

In 2020, President Mokgweetsi Masisi auctioned off some of the first elephant hunting permits in an apparent attempt to cut elephant numbers near villages and farmland. However, Botswanan guides and conservationists tell another story: hunting is an ineffective way of reducing elephant numbers near villages. The super herds of 500 elephants that occur in the Okavango Delta aren’t a sign of a healthy population; they’re a sign that stressed elephants are looking for safety from human interference.

Aimed at trophy hunters largely from the USA, hunting permits aren’t a sustainable income for communities in the Okavango Delta. Wildlife guides would much rather that the government offered farmers another way of preventing elephant-human conflict – including investing in responsible wildlife tourism that funds the upkeep of protected national parks that give elephants more room to move.

When to see wildlife

Wildlife is perfectly in sync with the climate in the Okavango Delta. Seeing animals all depends on the rains, which have become increasingly unpredictable as the climate changes. Currently, the best time to see wildlife in the Okavango Delta is between May and August – it takes six months for the Angolan floodwater that feeds the Okavango Delta to arrive. May and June can be cold, so bring layers.
The wildlife is still around in the showery off-season – it’s just a little trickier to find and materialises in smaller numbers. However, off-season has big perks: fewer tourists and lower prices. Whenever you go, travelling with a wildlife holiday expert that uses Botswanan guides and lodges makes all the difference. They can use their contacts to check water levels when you make a booking enquiry.
Debbie from Wildfoot offers her advice on when to go: “The water levels make a big difference to the wildlife in the Okavango Delta. You’ll find that the wildlife will go to natural waterholes, because they know they’re going to find water, so we have to be very mindful about where we’re sending people. If you want to do the mokoro canoe trip we just have to check what the water levels are when booking. We have a contact in situ in Botswana, so we have their feedback.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tim Copeland] [Top box: Cathy T] [Lions: Taylor Lee] [Guide: Surreal Name Given] [Elephants: Sunway]