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B is for Boma, K is for Kraal

Stuart Pimm and Lise Hanssen outside one of her kraals
Stuart Pimm and Lise Hanssen outside one of her kraals Photo Rudi van Aarde

I’m just south of the Zambezi river, in the Caprivi, the long eastern panhandle of Namibia that stretches from the Okavango River to Victoria falls. Angola and Zambia are only 40 miles away to the north, Botswana 10 to the south, and Zimbabwe less than 150 to the east. It’s certainly Africa’s most geographically complicated place — a legacy of the European powers’ 19th century scramble for colonies.

It’s also one of Africa’s most impressive areas for wildlife. All five countries have established large — and justifiably famous — national parks within a hard day’s drive on dirt roads — Luenge in Angola, Sioma Ngwezi and Kafue in Zambia, Hwange in Zimbabwe, Chobe and the Okavanga Delta in Botswana, Khaudum in Namibia.

Leaders of the five countries have committed to work to manage wildlife across this vast area creating Africa’s largest conservation area. It’s a remarkable achievement — but the practical issues are daunting.

When Lise Hanssen, a recent grantee for National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative sits down at her table outside her camp on the Kwandu River, she brings mugs of coffee — and a map.

I’m travelling with Professor Rudi van Aarde, my opposite number at the Conservation Ecology Research Unit and the University of Pretoria and a fellow member of the Big Cats committee. This is our start to a three week, 5,000 mile journey to visit grantees across Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.

Lisa explains the geography. “The Caprivi is the connection between the parks in Angola and Zambia to the north, and the huge areas of protected wilderness in Botswana to the south.”

Roads run across the Caprivi, while the flood plains of the Kwando-Chobe and Zambezi rivers are essential for wildlife, but vital places for people, their crops, and livestock too. This area could be the connector between the great parks to the north and south. “It can also be a knife that slices into the heart of Africa, isolating these areas” Lise points out.

Lise has chosen the site for her project strategically. There is a potential wildlife corridor from the north to the south, but one vital connection is missing — a populated area between Mudumu National Park an Mamili National Park. When lions stray out of these two areas, they get slaughtered.

“As soon as the numbers of lions build up, they stray outside the parks, kill livestock, and then people retaliate.”

Making such retaliation unnecessary is what the Big Cats Initiative is funding Lise to do.

Her solution is to build a better boma. Except, that here, south of the Zambezi, they called “kraals” — which motivates an English lesson. Either way, they are a protected fence behind which herders shelter their livestock at night.

The Oxford English Dictionary, attributes the first use in English of the Swahili “boma” to the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley. He used the word and explained its meaning, exactly as did those other great explorers David Livingstone and Richard Burton in their writings. Before one puts the pot on the fire to cook supper, it’s prudent to know where the lions are. I’ve had them sniff around my camp, likely more interested in me than my cooking. So, first build your boma.

But here, south of the Zambezi, the word is “kraal” from the Colonial Dutch. Whatever we call them National Geographic has a “Build a Boma” campaign to build these structures that offer a cost-effective solution to declining lion numbers. Next day, Lise takes me to a nearby village to see one she is helping the local community build.

One learns unexpected things from being on National Geographic committees. I’ve become a boma-kraal connoisseur, well acquainted with their finer points and geographical variation.

Here in the Caprivi, the kraals are distant from the villages where people live. Homes are sheltered behind densely matted walls of reeds, affording total privacy, though I doubt they would deter a predator that wanted to get through. The kraals are made of bushes and they are less than 100% effective. Lions find it easy to stampede the cattle, grabbing them as they flee.

Lise’s kraal building philosophy is simple: she’s building the Rolls-Royces of kraals, expensive (at $1500 a pop), but large, and built, in part, using professionals to bolt together the structures. These are structures meant to last and meant to be 100% effective.

She’s determined to ensure that lions may walk around her kraals, but frustrated that they cannot enter, move on. This is a key area for lions, their dispersal across this region is vital for their regional survival. Lise knows she has to restore their numbers.