Each year, conservationist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Steve Boyes travels over 200 miles in dugout canoes down Botswana's Okavango River in an effort to track and preserve the region's diverse and endangered wildlife-while thousands of people around the world follow along online.
Steve Boyes works to preserve and protect Botswana's uniquely pristine Okavango Delta and mitigate threats bringing parrot species to the brink of extinction throughout Africa. He is scientific director of the Wild Bird Trust.
The dugout canoe pushes through the steamy African wetland for eight grueling days. Then, the reeds part, and there it is. Paradise. Thousands of elephants, hundreds of hippos, buffalo, and baboons, marshes undulating with rhinos, leopards, lions, impalas-and over it all, the deafening music of 10,000 birds. "The first time I experienced the heart of the Okavango Delta, I was brought to tears," shares Steve Boyes. "I've seen no place that approaches wildlife densities like these. It's the closest I've come to pure African wilderness."
Few make the journey to the central core of Botswana's Okavango Delta. Until about 100 years ago, not a single human had entered it. The delta spans a 10,000-square-mile patchwork of wooded islands, floodplains, channels, and lagoons, fringed by the Kalahari Desert. "It's a treasure we need to protect," insists Boyes. His efforts support the delta's nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a status he hopes will be officially declared by 2014. As an inland delta, it marks the end of the line for the Okavango River, which flows a thousand miles from its source in Angola through Namibia to Botswana. Damming or agriculture along the way could halt or pollute waters that feed the delta's pristine ecosystems. Boyes and his colleagues are championing a multinational World Heritage site to protect the river's entire path. If successful, it would establish the largest protected area in the world.
Deep in the delta, Boyes met Africa's most abundant and widespread parrot species-Meyer's parrot. "Virtually nothing was known about this bird and why it flourished," he notes. Long days of intense observation revealed its ingenious strategies for avoiding competition with any other species. They've discovered a winter seed source, hidden in fruits, apparently unknown to other birds. This allows them to breed in the off-season and have any tree's nest cavity all to themselves.
While Boyes observes Meyer's parrots in unspoiled paradise, he studies South Africa's Cape parrots under completely opposite conditions. There, he reports deforestation has made the birds foreigners in their own habitat. "Nest sites and food sources have vanished. It's horrible to see flocks flying around in a panic looking for food they can't find." The critically endangered species is also beset by devastating Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease. "I call it the doomsday virus," says Boyes, "stripping feathers and disintegrating beaks. When healthy, they are so beautiful. I've never seen a bird, even when sick, that so enjoys flying." He rescues and examines infected victims, and has been able to rehabilitate and release some back into the wild. His team identified the deadly virus and is working on a vaccine. "In the 1970s, we'd see single flocks of over a thousand Cape parrots. Today, there are fewer than a thousand in the entire world."
The African gray parrot suffers yet another threat-the illegal captive bird trade. Boyes's outcry over a report of 700 African grays that died on a commercial airplane flight led to the exposure of massive criminal syndicates in Africa. "Thousands of these parrots are stolen from nests and salt licks in the wild and treated like factory chickens, fed a diet that stimulates constant egg production, and kept in the dark for years before dying," Boyes says. His findings caused a moratorium to be placed on importation of African gray parrots into South Africa, a global victory for the wild-caught bird trade.
Boyes's most ambitious undertaking lies in planting trees and mounting nest boxes for Cape parrots and the forests they depend on. He works closely with local communities to plant and nurture thousands of seedlings on their land; then he buys them back and replants them to replenish decimated forests. Meanwhile, hundreds of nest boxes now allow homeless parrots to successfully breed and repopulate in deforested areas. "We're giving these communities an opportunity to be custodians of these forests once again," Boyes says. "Amid tragic stories of parrots dying in planes, losing their forests, and suffering infection, it's the human story that's most encouraging and uplifting, thanks to these wonderful local people."
Ironically, the man who thrives in the wild is remarkably tech savvy. Boyes's blogs bring the exotic landscapes and birds he loves to millions who may never see them in person-raising awareness, political action, media attention, and funds for preservation. "Yes, shocking things are happening," he says. "But when good people find out, they get very motivated to act."