Mahango Game Reserve and Kavango river

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
This IBA includes the portion of the Kavango river in north-eastern Namibia between Andara Mission and the Botswana border at the western end of the Caprivi Strip. The IBA includes the Mahango Game Reserve, which essentially consists of the vast flood-plain along the Kavango river (the start of the panhandle of the Okavango Swamps) and its associated riverine forests and woodlands. Once the Kavango river leaves Namibia it flows into and creates the Okavango Delta in Botswana. High water occurs in April from rains in the highlands of Angola, and floods usually reach heights of 3–4 m above the low-level water in November. This flooding is essential for the functioning of all aquatic systems along the river. The climate can be divided into two distinct seasons—a dry season between April and November, and a shorter wet season from the end of November to early April. The monthly average maximum temperature is 30°C and about 80% of the region’s rain (550–600 mm per year) falls between October and April.

Vegetation along the river is extremely diverse with 869 species from 88 families so far recognized, about 25% more species-rich than the delta itself. The vegetated dunes that dominate the topography away from the river include extensive dry woodlands. Dominant trees of the riparian woodland include Garcinia, Sclerocarya, Diospyros, Acacia and Grewia. The vegetation of the dunes is dominated by mixed Pterocarpus, Ricinodendron, Ziziphus and dense stands of Baikiaea and Baphia shrubs. The riparian vegetation is of particular importance. In Namibia, riparian woodland is increasingly rare as it is mostly destroyed during human settlement. The flood-plain comprises reedbeds, swamps, open flooded grasslands and papyrus Cyperus. Two conspicuous species on the edge of the flood-plain are the palm Phoenix and baobab Adansonia.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Table 3 for key species. The reserve’s most important feature is the flood-plain, which is critical habitat for breeding wetland bird species. About two-thirds of Namibia’s bird species have been recorded in Mahango, and it boasts the highest species diversity in Namibia, the result of a diversity of both wetland and tropical terrestrial species. The flood-plain supports important populations of rare wetland birds including Egretta vinaceigula, Grus carunculatus, Ardeola rufiventris, Pelecanus rufescens, Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, Microparra capensis, Vanellus albiceps, V. crassirostris, Glareola pratincola, Macronyx ameliae and Circus pygargus. The riverbanks and rocks hold Glareola nuchalis and Rynchops flavirostris, while the fringing riparian vegetation supports Scotopelia peli and Gorsachius leuconotus. The surrounding grassveld also holds Palearctic migrants, including Glareola nordmanni.

Non-bird biodiversity: This is the second most species-rich area for mammals in Namibia, with 99 species. Threatened mammals occurring in the reserve include Lycaon pictus (EN), Loxodonta africana (EN), and Lutra maculicollis (VU), which requires pristine aquatic habitat. The frog Phrynomantis affinis, with only five specimens known, occurs here. About 71 species of fish occur in the Kavango river, including two threatened species.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Declared a conservation area by the former Kavango Executive Committee in 1983, Mahango was opened to the public three years later in 1986. The reserve was officially proclaimed in 1989. After Namibian independence (1990), ownership of the reserve was transferred to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Mahango is part of a comprehensive planning programme in the Caprivi Strip called the North East Parks Project, largely funded by the German Development Bank (KfW). The area is soon to be part of the new Babwata National Park.

The management of the riparian strip and flood-plain is of utmost importance. Any dramatic alteration of the Namibian portion of this river will affect the Okavango Delta (BW003) in neighbouring Botswana. The entire portion of the river in Namibian territory needs careful management planning since 78% of the 120,000 people who live along the Kavango occur within 5 km of the river and the pressure for resources is intense. Measures to mitigate human impacts on the flood-plain and adjacent riparian strip and alternative options to slash-and-burn agriculture need to be sought. Education campaigns on sustainable utilization of the river’s resources and its surrounding habitats are a priority.Threatened mammals such as Loxodonta africana and Kobus leche migrate out of the park and are threatened by poachers in the neighbouring areas. Furthermore, uncontrolled growth in the elephant population is of some concern, as they modify habitat at a dramatic rate, especially in the highly sensitive riparian zone, which has suffered enormous impact from elephants in the last few years. Human disturbance to Rynchops flavirostris is caused by the wake generated by motorized boats destroying sandbank nesting sites. Disturbance by humans also causes adult birds to abandon their nests, exposing eggs and chicks to intense heat and additional predation pressure.

Uncontrolled fires in the Kavango region can also cause extensive damage to wildlife and reduce plant species diversity. Pesticides used annually to control malarial mosquitoes and tsetse fly Glossina (DDT and dieldrin) are found in the river and occur mainly from the astonishing practice of rinsing equipment and occasionally from the dumping of surplus supplies directly into the river. That this happens in the ‘protected’ Mahango Reserve is cause for great concern.If future water abstraction occurs at Rundu to feed the growing population of Windhoek, off-take during flooding periods may reduce flooding levels below the critical threshold required for spawning fish. Non-selectivity of fishing gear has led to an almost total absence of larger fish. It has been suggested that fishing be restricted in some areas to allow fish stocks to recover.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Mahango Game Reserve and Kavango river. Downloaded from on 28/11/2022.