How this SA biologist became obsessed with parrots and was nearly killed by a hippo in a bid to save the Okavango

Business Insider SA

Dr. Steve Boyes during his presentation at TED Sal
Dr. Steve Boyes during his presentation at TED Salon at Marriott Hotel Crystal Towers in Cape Town (James de Villiers, Business Insider South Africa)
  • South African born biologist Steve Boyes will in May help set up the first base for the Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower conservation area, which will be the largest in the world.
  • Boyes’ work in the Okavango started in 2001 when he studied parrots in the area, and helped to discover 32 new species.
  • He helped declare the area a World Heritage site, was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been named a TED senior fellow.  

In May, biologist Steve Boyes will help set up the first base for the Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower conservation area - set to be the largest conservation area in the world.

That will be the culmination of close to twenty years of work in the area, where Boyes helped to discover 32 new species, 19 source-lakes and three waterfalls. 

During a Ted Salon presentation at Marriott Hotel Crystal Towers, Cape Town native Boyes explained his conservation efforts will help safeguard the entire region from the effects of climate change.

“This is, however, far more than simply protecting the ecosystems that clean the water we drink [and] create the air we breathe,” Boyes said.

“Preserving wilderness protects our basic human right to be wild, protects our basic human rights to explore.”

Boyes first encountered the vast Okavango Delta in Botswana in 2001 after he completed his studies at Stellenbosch University.

He ended up doing a PhD on Meyer’s parrot in the Okavango Delta.

In 2013 he was selected as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, helped establish the Okavango Delta as a World Heritage site in 2014, and in 2015 he became a TED Senior Fellow.

The same year he led a multiyear expedition with Angolan, Namibian, and South African scientists to explore the little-known Cuito river system in the Angolan highlands that feeds the Okavango river basin.

“You [were] living on rice and beans bathing in a bucket of cold water and paddling an average of six to eight hours every single day,” he said about the expedition.

“After 121 days of this, I had forgotten the pin numbers for my bank accounts and log-in for social media. A complete systems reboot.”

The Zambezi river extending into Angola where Boye
The Zambezi river extending into Angola where Boyes will help to establish the world's largest conservation area.

It was during this expedition, where he was attacked by a hippo he mistook for a crocodile, that the scientists discovered the importance of the Okavango-Zambezi Water Tower which feeds the Zambezi, Okavango, and Cuando rivers.

The area is home to the largest remaining elephant population on the planet. 

In December 2018 Boyes signed a protocol with the Angolan government to protect the area.

“[The area] is like a giant glacier that’s sitting on top of the Kalahari sand basin that keeps these rivers flowing throughout the year.”

He said despite being away from the river for media tours and to attract donors across the world, he feels like he’ll never quite leave the Okovango.

“Now, I am not a particularly religious or spiritual person, but I believe in the wild I have experienced the birthplace of religion,” he said. “Standing in front of an elephant far away from anywhere is the closest I will ever get to God.”

“Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, the Hindu teachers, prophets and mystics all went into the wilderness, into the mountains, into the desert to sit quietly and listen for those secrets that would define their societies for millennia.”  

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