Despite its uniqueness and prominent ecological standing, including being recognised as the planet's largest and most significant Ramsar Wetland Site, the Okavango Delta is afforded no special protection.
As a result, there are a number of serious threats to its long-term existence. In fact, certain conservation bodies already consider the extended wildlife ecosystem of northern Botswana to be critically endangered.
While some of these issues are of a localised nature, giving them a reasonable chance of being resolved by the various stakeholders, those that are more ominous concern Namibia and Angola, and are likely to require a concerted international effort.
Recommendations and proposals have been put forward to have the region declared a World Heritage Site. It is hoped that this move would ensure its future protection and survival. In the meantime, both local and international conservation agencies should not for one moment relax their vigilance.
The most serious threat to the Delta, and one that could be catastrophic, is the construction of any form of dam or weir, particularly if built in Namibia or Angola, that would disrupt the flow of water and sediment load that enters the Delta on an annual basis.
In 1991 mining interests within Botswana proposed to divert the Okavango's waters via a number of canals that were to be dredged north of Maun, but, with the help of international conservation agencies, the people of Ngamiland managed to halt the potentially devastating scheme.
It would be naïve to assume that more such initiatives are not likely to arise in the future. The biggest threat is likely to come from Angola, as, after decades of civil war, the people are now looking to rebuild their country and dams may very well be on the agenda.
Outside of Ngamiland, Botswana is mostly cattle country. And, as the rangelands of the southern and central regions become degraded from overgrazing and overstocking, the relatively untouched communal lands surrounding the Okavango are beginning to look ever more enticing to the powerful cattle lobby.
The end result would be that the Okavango becomes like most other wilderness areas on the continent: a national park totally surrounded by human and commercial activity. With the demise of free-ranging wildlife populations, Botswana would lose the competitive advantage that it presently enjoys in southern Africa as the most special of safari destinations.Rezoning this wildlife region into a commercial cattle zone would herald an invasion of livestock and the erection of more veterinary fences, which would end the seasonal use of ancient migratory routes by certain herbivore species. Predator control measures would, in all likelihood, also be stepped up. There are almost 2.5 million head of cattle in Botswana. As it is mostly a semi-arid country, over 100 000 square kilometres in the central and southern regions have already been degraded in some form because of overgrazing.
Worldwide, gill netting has been either banned or heavily restricted, but not in the Okavango Delta. This is a legacy of previous misguided attempts by aid agencies to provide rural communities with the means to get more protein, and the Panhandle and certain regions within the community areas of the Delta are now literally littered with gill nets.
Operating with impunity and, in some instances using nets that are a few hundred metres in length, the commercial fishermen will in time plunder the Okavango's fish resources if left unregulated. Catfish and various bream species are the major fish being harvested, with the bream going mostly to supermarkets, restaurants and lodges, and the catfish to village markets. Gill nets are indiscriminate in what they kill, with otters, small crocodiles and water birds often becoming entangled.
The unprofessional and illegal hunting practices that can have an impact on the numbers and the gene pools of certain species on the trophy lists. Although not yet an issue, excessive pressures being brought to bear on the environment from tourism may very well become a problem in the future. Numerous scientific researchers and fieldworkers are involved in various projects throughout the national parks, reserves and wildlife management areas.
Mostly unsung and often working under trying conditions, these dedicated people are involved in ongoing research and monitoring programmes that are crucial to the conservation of Botswana's bio-diversity.
The uncontrolled and illegal lighting of fires that annually burn over 30 percent of the Okavango and environs. Once alight and fed by the highly inflammable reed and papyrus beds, uncontrolled fires can burn for weeks on end. They are most often started by reed and grass cutters and commercial gill-net fishermen.