As a form of recreation, bird-watching is the fastest-growing outdoor hobby in the world and when she officiated at the World Migratory Bird Day in Mogoditshane last Saturday, the United States Ambassador to Botswana, Michelle Gavin, urged Batswana to unlock the immense business potential that it offers. The event, which was held at the Mogoditshane Senior Secondary School, was organised by BirdLife Botswana.
“People around the world admire birds so much that watching them is big business. The global bird-watching industry is worth some $80 billion dollars annually. That’s over four times as large as the entire economy of Botswana. One of the things I admire most about BirdLife is their work with local communities to bring some of that $80 billion to Botswana by developing bird-watching tourism here. I admire that activity because I am convinced that Botswana’s future economic prosperity lies in the sustainable use of its wildlife,” Gavin said.
At independence, Botswana was dirt poor and it is a great irony that its economic fortunes were dramatically turned around when it started to sift through dirt. Gavin said that just as diamonds helped build the Botswana of today, sustainable use of wildlife can build the Botswana of tomorrow.
“Already today, eco-tourism generates 8 billion pula per year and employs almost 50 000 Batswana.
And the value of Botswana’s wildlife and its importance to the average Motswana will only continue to grow. By 2022, tourism-related activities are projected to almost double to bring in over 15 billion pula – but that will only happen if we all work together to preserve Botswana’s environmental wealth,” the ambassador said.
Botswana seems to be (literally) well-positioned to make the most from this bird-watching goldmine. At face value, bird-watching as a hobby is somewhat confounding to a Motswana who grew up with birds all around and would be inclined to misconstrue it as just another one of those white people’s hobbies. However, there is a way in which the sporting pursuits of birders intersect very strongly with commercial interests of local communities with birding hotspots. Gavin praised BirdLife Botswana for identifying important birding areas, training birding guides and helping communities set up tourist infrastructure.
Its project officer, Michael Molaodi, says that since 2006, the organisation has trained 80 birding guides all across Botswana. Bi-annually, BirdLife offers a bird-identification course for which participants pay only P50. It has sponsored a two-week benchmarking trip to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa for 10 youths from Manyelanong Trust in Otse. It has also sponsored a similar one-week trip to Etosha National Park in Namibia for a technical advisory committee in Boteti that included the headmen of Mosu, Mmatshumu, Mmea and Mokubilo. In terms of infrastructure, the organisation has set up bird-watching towers (called “bird hides”) in Gaborone Game Reserve, Mokolodi Nature Reserve and Khama Rhino Sanctuary.
Gavin said that communities that benefit from the presence of birds will protect their birds and habitats.
“Unfortunately, our feathered friends need that protection, especially those that migrate long distances. For example, it is estimated that in excess of 100 000 migratory birds are killed every year in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Many of these are the same birds that would delight tourists in Chobe National Park or the Okavango Delta. So, the result is that unnecessary bird deaths in Malta and North Africa reduce the income of tour guides in Nata, Seronga and Rakops. The conservation of migratory birds has direct relevance to poverty reduction and human development in Southern Africa.”
According to the BirdLife website, the best time for bird-watching in Botswana is late November to March when the number of bird species is at its highest with migratory species having arrived to join Botswana’s resident species. The north of the country is especially rich in bird life with around 450 species having been recorded in the northern Chobe National Park and surrounding areas and in the Okavango Delta. Some 580 different bird species have been recorded in the country. By early December, all the migratory species have arrived in Botswana.