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TED2018

Steve Boyes: How we're saving one of Earth's last wild places

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Navigating territorial hippos and active minefields, TED Fellow Steve Boyes and a team of scientists have been traveling through the Okavango Delta, Africa's largest remaining wetland wilderness, to explore and protect this near-pristine habitat against the rising threat of development. In this awe-inspiring talk packed with images, he shares his work doing detailed scientific surveys in the hopes of protecting this enormous, fragile wilderness.

- Conservation biologist
Steve Boyes is working to study and conserve the endangered Okavango Delta in Botswana. Full bio

Visible from space,
00:12
the Okavango Delta
00:13
is Africa's largest remaining
intact wetland wilderness.
00:15
This shining delta in landlocked Botswana
is the jewel of the Kalahari,
00:20
more valuable than diamonds
to the world's largest diamond producer
00:26
and celebrated in 2014
00:30
as our planet's 1000th
UNESCO World Heritage Site.
00:32
Now, what you see here
are the two major tributaries,
00:36
the Cuito and the Cubango,
00:39
disappearing up north
into the little-known Angolan highlands.
00:41
This is the largest undeveloped
river basin on the planet,
00:45
spanning an area larger than California.
00:49
These vast, undeveloped Angolan
watersheds were frozen in time
00:53
by 27 years of civil war.
00:57
In fact, Africa's largest tank battle
since World War II
00:59
was fought over a bridge
crossing the Okavango's Cuito River.
01:03
There on the right,
01:07
disappearing off into the unknown,
01:08
into the "Terra do fim do mundo" --
01:10
the land at the end of the earth,
01:12
as it was known by the first
Portuguese explorers.
01:14
In 2001, at the age of 22,
01:18
I took a job as head of housekeeping
at Vundumtiki Camp
01:21
in the Okavango Delta ...
01:25
a patchwork mosaic of channels,
floodplains, lagoons
01:27
and thousands upon thousands
of islands to explore.
01:32
Home to the largest remaining
population of elephants on the planet.
01:36
Rhinos are airlifted in C130s
to find sanctuary in this wilderness.
01:40
Lion,
01:46
leopard,
01:47
hyena,
01:48
wild dog,
01:49
cheetah,
01:50
ancient baobab trees
that stand like cathedrals
01:52
under the Milky Way.
01:56
Here, I discovered something obvious:
01:57
wilderness is our natural habitat, too.
02:01
We need these last wild places
to reconnect with who we really are.
02:04
We --
02:10
all seven billion of us --
02:11
must never forget
we are a biological species
02:12
forever bound to this
particular biological world.
02:16
Like the waves connected to the ocean,
02:19
we cannot exist apart from it --
02:21
a constant flow of atoms and energy
between individuals and species
02:23
around the world in a day
02:27
and out into the cosmos.
02:29
Our fates are forever connected
to the millions of species
02:33
we rely on directly
and indirectly every day.
02:36
Four years ago,
02:42
it was declared that 50 percent
of all wildlife around the world
02:43
had disappeared in just 40 years.
02:47
This is a mass drowning
of 15,000 wildebeests
02:51
that I witnessed
in the Maasai Mara two years ago.
02:54
This is definitely our fault.
02:57
By 2020, global wildlife populations
are projected to have fallen
03:01
by a staggering two-thirds.
03:05
We are the sixth extinction
03:07
because we left no safe space
for millions of species
03:10
to sustainably coexist.
03:13
Now, since 2010, I have poled myself
eight times across the Okavango Delta
03:16
to conduct detailed scientific surveys
03:22
along a 200-mile,
18-day research transect.
03:24
Now, why am I doing this?
03:28
Why am I risking my life each year?
03:29
I'm doing this because
we need this information
03:31
to benchmark this near-pristine wilderness
03:33
before upstream development happens.
03:35
These are the Wayeyi river bushmen,
the people of the Okavango Delta.
03:37
They have taught me all I know
about the Mother Okavango --
03:43
about presence in the wild.
03:46
Our shared pilgrimage across
the Okavango Delta each year
03:47
in our mokoros or dugout canoes --
03:51
remembers millenia living in the wild.
03:53
Ten thousand years ago,
03:57
our entire world was wilderness.
03:59
Today, wilderness is all that remains
of that world, now gone.
04:02
Ten thousand years ago,
we were as we are today:
04:09
a modern, dreaming intelligence
unlike anything seen before.
04:13
Living in the wilderness
is what taught us to speak,
04:17
to seek technologies
like fire and stone, bow and arrow,
04:19
medicine and poison,
04:23
to domesticate plants and animals
04:24
and rely on each other
and all living things around us.
04:27
We are these last wildernesses --
04:30
every one of us.
04:32
Over 80 percent
of our planet's land surface
04:34
is now experiencing
measurable human impact:
04:36
habitat destruction
04:40
and illegal wildlife trade are decimating
global wildlife populations.
04:41
We urgently need to create
safe space for these wild animals.
04:45
So in late 2014,
04:49
we launched an ambitious
project to do just that:
04:51
explore and protect.
04:54
By mid-May 2015,
04:56
we had pioneered access
through active minefields
04:58
to the undocumented source lake
of the Cuito River --
05:00
this otherworldly place;
05:03
an ancient, untouched wilderness.
05:05
By the 21st of May,
05:08
we had launched
the Okavango megatransect ...
05:09
in seven dugout canoes;
05:13
1,500 miles, 121 days later,
05:14
all of the poling, paddling
and intensive research
05:18
got us across the entire river basin
to Lake Xau in the Kalahari Desert,
05:21
480 kilometers past the Okavango Delta.
05:25
My entire world became the water:
05:29
every ripple, eddy,
lily pad and current ...
05:31
any sign of danger,
05:36
every sign of life.
05:38
Now imagine millions of sweat bees
choking the air around you,
05:40
flesh-eating bacteria,
05:43
the constant threat
of a landmine going off
05:45
or an unseen hippo capsizing your mokoro.
05:48
These are the scenes
moments after a hippo did just that --
05:50
thrusting its tusks
through the hull of my boat.
05:53
You can see the two holes --
05:56
puncture wounds in the base of the hull --
05:57
absolutely terrifying
06:00
and completely my fault.
06:01
(Laughter)
06:03
Many, many portages,
06:05
tree blockages
and capsizes in rocky rapids.
06:07
You're living on rice and beans,
06:12
bathing in a bucket of cold water
06:15
and paddling a marathon
six to eight hours every single day.
06:16
After 121 days of this,
06:19
I'd forgotten the PIN numbers
to my bank accounts
06:21
and logins for social media --
06:24
a complete systems reboot.
06:25
You ask me now if I miss it,
06:28
and I will tell you I am still there.
06:30
Now why do we need to save
places we hardly ever go?
06:33
Why do we need to save places
06:36
where you have to risk
your life to be there?
06:38
Now, I'm not a religious
or particularly spiritual person,
06:40
but in the wild,
06:44
I believe I've experienced
the birthplace of religion.
06:46
Standing in front of an elephant
far away from anywhere
06:50
is the closest I will ever get to God.
06:53
Moses, Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus,
06:57
the Hindu teachers, prophets and mystics,
06:59
all went into the wilderness --
07:01
up into the mountains, into the desert,
07:03
to sit quietly and listen
for those secrets
07:05
that were to guide
their societies for millennia.
07:07
I go into the Okavango on my mokoro.
07:10
You must join me one day.
07:13
Over 50 percent of the remaining
wilderness is unprotected.
07:16
A huge opportunity --
07:19
a chance for us all.
07:21
We need to act with great urgency.
07:25
Since the 2015 megatransect,
07:27
we have explored all major rivers
of the Okavango River basin,
07:30
covering a life-changing 4,000 miles
of detailed research transects
07:33
on our dugout canoes
07:37
and our fat-tire mountain bikes.
07:38
We now have 57 top scientists
07:40
rediscovering what we call
the Okavango-Zambezi water tower --
07:43
this vast, post-war wilderness
with undocumented source lakes,
07:47
unnamed waterfalls in what is Africa's
largest remaining Miombo woodland.
07:53
We've now discovered
24 new species to science
07:59
and hundreds of species
not known to be there.
08:02
This year, we start the process,
with the Angolan government,
08:05
to establish one of the largest systems
of protected areas in the world
08:08
to preserve the
Okavango-Zambezi water tower
08:12
we have been exploring.
08:14
Downstream, this represents
water security for millions of people
08:15
and more than half of the elephants
remaining on this planet.
08:19
There is no doubt this is the biggest
conservation opportunity in Africa
08:23
in decades.
08:27
Over the next 10 to 15 years,
08:28
we need to make
an unprecedented investment
08:29
in the preservation
of wilderness around the world.
08:32
To me,
08:35
preserving wilderness is far more
than simply protecting ecosystems
08:36
that clean the water we drink
and create the air we breathe.
08:41
Preserving wilderness protects
our basic human right to be wild --
08:44
our basic human rights to explore.
08:48
Thank you.
08:52
(Applause)
08:53

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About the speaker:

Steve Boyes - Conservation biologist
Steve Boyes is working to study and conserve the endangered Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Why you should listen

South African conservation biologist Steve Boyes explores and studies remote wildernesses in Africa, including the endangered Okavango Delta, to protect and restore them. Trained as an ornithologist, he is the Executive Director of the Wild Bird Trust and a Fellow at the National Geographic Society. 

More profile about the speaker
Steve Boyes | Speaker | TED.com