Safari tourism is big business in Botswana, writes Mike Munro.

Our Botswanan guide offers a quiet word of advice before the walking safari in the Okavango Delta begins.

"Whatever happens in the bush", he says, "don't run."

He'd been listening to us wondering out loud whether any of these magnificent predators are in the vicinity of our intended route, and what we'd do if confronted by one.

The guide, Carl, indicates he's come face-to-face with lions, and he knows what to do, which provides a degree of comfort. The key, apparently, is to stay still and eyeball them.

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As it transpires, we don't see any lions on the two-hour walk. There are some elephants following a trail, giraffes foraging in the distance, and occasionally antelopes, warthogs and vultures.

But the big cats are elsewhere today.

Still fresh in our memories is a lion incident days earlier near Kasane, 250km to the north-east. While on a vehicle safari in Botswana's Chobe National Park, we watched with astonishment as a pride of four were shot and killed after attacking cattle outside the confines of the 11,000sq km park.

The author's party witnessed an incident in which hunting lions were killed in Namibia. Photo / Mike Munro
The author's party witnessed an incident in which hunting lions were killed in Namibia. Photo / Mike Munro

Near Kasane, the Chobe River forms not just the northern boundary of the national park, but also the border between Botswana and Namibia. On the Namibian side of the river lies a cattle farm.

We saw and heard the whole grisly incident unfold — the four female lions eyeing their prey from the park side of the river; the lions swimming across the river and lying in wait in the grass; the cattle wandering obliviously towards them; the distressed bellowing of the cattle as the lions attacked; then the sight of a flat deck truck, on which stood several men clutching firearms, speeding to the scene; and, finally, the sound of gunfire as the lions were destroyed.

We learn later that it's not the first time lions have been shot after straying on to Namibian farms. Such incidents not only cause cross-border tensions, court charges and claims to the Botswana Government for compensation, but they are also deeply distressing for the guides and gamekeepers.

Safari tourism is big business in Botswana, a landlocked country that shares borders with South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. A focus on high-end users sees tourism revenues now second to diamonds.

And what is noticeable to the visitor is a strong commitment to safeguarding the interests of wildlife, and to promoting sustainable practises.

Game park gates are locked at sunset, off-track safariing is strictly prohibited, and at Chobe the safari vehicles are electric to minimise noise and emissions.

With the help of Botswana's security forces, the country is a beacon of hope in the fight against elephant poachers.

The elephant population is estimated at about 200,000, the largest of any African country, and growing about 5 per cent annually, bucking the continent's trend of declining numbers. Guide Carl tells us that Botswana's President, Ian Khama, has dismisssed talk of a cull, which some favour, preferring the density of the elephant population be regulated by natural events such as drought and fire depleting forage resources, rather than human intervention.

At Camp Okavango, set on a remote island in the heart of the Okavango Delta — a maze of reed-lined waterways and riverine forests — there are further reminders about the paramountcy of wildlife interests.

While we're there a bull elephant comes inside the camp perimeter daily in search of sustenance, using his giant head to butt smallish trees to the ground so he can eat the foliage. Such is the mess left by this mammalian wrecking ball that it looks like a small tornado has torn through parts of the place. Nobody dares disturb the elephant as it goes about its forage.

The luxurious suites under the shade of mangosteen trees, and the walkways to them, are raised one and half metres, allowing the forest vegetation to thrive and smaller game, such as antelopes and baboons, to pass unhindered.

One evening a wallowing hippopotamus wrecks the pump that draws water for the camp from one of the delta's many channels, cutting the water supply for 12 hours. Staff work through the night to carry out repairs, apologising for the inconvenience to guests but quietly reminding us that we're in the wilds of Africa.

This, after all, is the creatures' domain, and humans need to work around them if they choose to encroach.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Etihad, in alliance with codeshare partners, flies to Johannesburg.

Further information: See chobenationalpark.co.za.