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Chobe National Park embraces 11,000 square kilometres of wilderness, one of the largest protected areas in Botswana. But the park is rapidly becoming a victim of its own success. During the 1970s and 80s rampant poaching drastically reduced the population of elephants throughout Africa. A nucleus of several thousand animals in the Chobe River area escaped the slaughter and Botswana's rigorous conservation efforts have since helped the herd grow to the largest concentration of elephants in all of Africa. But the big pachyderms are rapidly destroying the forest and the herd may well have outgrown the carrying capacity of the park. Some authorities have proposed a cull, and suggested that its cost could be financed through sale of the ivory. This is violently opposed by other groups who feel that an ivory market, no matter how well regulated, would lead to a renewal of poaching. So far the matter is unresolved and while the experts ponder their fate thousands of happy elephants continue to thrive and enjoy the moist luxury of the Chobe River pachyderm paradise.
As soon as we were settled in our new camp the eight of us piled into an outboard skiff for a cruise along the river. David, our guide and boatman, guided his small craft expertly through myriad, reed-lined channels, pausing every so often to point out some exotic creature: a malachite kingfisher, its large head and massive bright red beak out of all proportion with its small iridescent body, a baby Nile crocodile basking on the bank with its mouth wide open, a snakebird trying to swallow a fish too big to go down its long skinny neck. And before any of us even saw them David throttled back and swung the boat to avoid a pod of hippos. Only their eyes and nostrils projected above the dark surface but their huge powerful bodies just below the surface are a constant danger to small boats. In fact hippos are responsible for more human deaths than those caused by lions or any other big-game animal in Africa. Because many of the native boat people are unable to swim, getting dumped by a hippo is often fatal.
A family of wart hogs scurried along the shore. Behind them a large group of antelope (springbok, impala, and bush buck) paused at the edge of the forest before venturing down to the water's edge for a drink. They paid no attention to a large baboon digging roots and grubs from the bank.