Celebrating 90 years since the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park was proclaimed

Wedged into a remote corner of South Africa’s Northern Cape, between Namibia and Botswana, lies a very special piece of the Kalahari Desert. Here a wilderness of dunes, pans and dry, sandy river beds is a safe refuge to a rich variety of natural life, and one of the last fully functional ecosystems remaining on earth. The beds of the Auob and Nossob Rivers very rarely boast flowing water – the Auob perhaps once in ten years, the Nossob only once or twice in a century.

When the First World War broke out over a 100 years ago, the British Colonial government of the Union of South Africa and British Bechuanaland considered the beds of the Auob and Nossob Rivers a strategic access into German South West Africa and started sinking boreholes in the rivers to supply advancing troops. After the war, the area was divided into farms by a Scotsman, Roger Jackson, explaining how many of the waterholes today carry very Scottish-sounding names. The newly settled farmers however found it tough going – the fascinating museum at Auchterlonie providing a glimpse into this hard life – and had to turn their rifles on the herds of game moving through the area in order to make a living.

With the game population falling drastically, and shortly after South Africa’s first national park was proclaimed (the Kruger in the then Transvaal) two influential men from the region invited then Minister of Lands, Piet Grobler, on a “hunting trip” in the Kalahari and deliberately took him to an area denuded of wildlife. So disturbed was the minister by the lack of game that he immediately set about the process of proclaiming the area between the Auob and Nossob Rivers South Africa’s next national park – the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park coming into official existence on 31 July 1931. Soon more land to the southwest of the Auob and its confluence with the Nossob were added, bringing the size of the Park to 9,600km². Then, in 1938 the government in neighbouring Bechuanaland (today Botswana) proclaimed an even bigger piece of land on the other side of the Nossob (the unfenced international boundary between the two countries) the Gemsbok National Park. Informally the two conservation areas were managed as a single unit ever since, but it wasn’t until 1999 when the leaders of the two countries signed a treaty to formalise the arrangement. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, covering over 34,500km², was officially opened on 12 May 2000 and is one of the biggest, and most unspoiled, conservation areas on the planet.

Gemsbok statue at Twee Rivieren’s reception, symbolic of the two “Gemsbok” parks joining together to form the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

On the South African side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park guests have a choice of three “traditional” rest camps offering basic amenities like accommodation, camping, a shop, fuel station, swimming pools, and guided walks and drives. Twee Rivieren is the main entrance, biggest camp and administrative centre of the Park (it also has a restaurant and border control) and offered the first tourist accommodation in the Park in 1940, while Mata Mata (on the Auob River, opened 1955) and Nossob (on the Nossob River, opened 1966) lie deeper into the Park, about 120m and 160km away from Twee Rivieren respectively. Union’s End marks the point where the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia meet and is one of 6 rustic picnic sites available on the South African side of the Park. Six smaller Wilderness Camps are also spread throughout the Park – these offer only accommodation to overnight visitors. Between Twee Rivieren and Mata Mata lie the Kalahari Tent Camp, Urikaruus and Kieliekrankie, between Nossob and Mata Mata is located Bitterpan while Gharagab and Grootkolk is located north of Nossob on the way to Union’s End. While there’s around 500km of prepared roads (very sandy and corrugated in places, not recommended for sedans) to explore the Park in relative comfort, there is also a selection of guided and self-guided 4×4 trails available.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park must be one of South Africa’s most out-of-the-way tourist attractions, lying about 1060km from Pretoria and 1040km from Cape Town. The nearest major airport with daily flights is at Upington, about 250km away from Twee Rivieren.

For such an arid area – average rainfall measures around 200mm per annum – the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is home to an astonishing variety of wildlife. Apart from a wide variety of desert-adapted plants and invertebrates, the Park’s lists boast 62 kinds of mammals, 274 species of bird (of which 78 are resident throughout the year), 48 sorts of reptiles (including 17 snake species) and seven kinds of frogs.

Chestnut-vented Warbler

Sylvia subcoerulea

With an unfortunate English name drawing even more attention to its most noticeable characteristic, the Chestnut-vented Warbler (or Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler) would probably prefer to go by its Afrikaans name “Bosveldtjeriktik” which imitates the first notes of its cheerful song.

Chestnut-vented Warblers are found in dry savannas, woodlands and thickets along drainage lines and hillsides and will also venture into gardens in small towns. They are very active when foraging, looking for insects, fruits, seeds and nectar amongst the foliage and flowers of trees and shrubs. Chestnut-vented Warblers are common and confident little birds usually seen singly or in pairs.

Chestnut-vented Warblers may breed at anytime of year, though there is a distinct peak in spring. Their nests are thin-walled cups of dry grass and twigs built in a tree or shrub. The parents take turns to incubate the clutch of 2-4 eggs and feeding the hatchlings until they fledge, both stages taking around 14 days. Fully grown they measure around 15cm in length and weigh 16g.

The Chestnut-vented Warbler occurs throughout South Africa and also in Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and marginally in Lesotho. The IUCN considers it to be of least concern.


Nesotragus moschatus

One of the smallest antelope occurring in South Africa, the Suni weighs only around 5kg and stands a measly 35cm tall at the shoulder. Only the ram carries the short horns, while the ewes are slightly more heavily built.

Sunis are very particular about their habitat, preferring dense, dry thickets in deciduous woodland and riverine forests, often on sandy soils. They are browsers, feeding selectively on nutrient-rich leaves, fruit, shoots, mushrooms and herbs.

Usually encountered singly and more infrequently in pairs or small groups, Sunis are most active from dusk to dawn and have favoured spots where they rest during the heat of the day. Rams mark their territories with their prominent pre-orbital scent glands and dung middens, and both sexes are inclined to use well-trodden paths through their home range, making them especially prone to predation and poaching.

Suni ewes give birth to single lambs, usually during the rainy season. The lambs are hidden for the first few weeks of life, with the ewe returning to them regularly through the day to nurse. The lambs are weaned when they’re 2-3 months old and sexually mature by the time they’re a year old. Their natural lifespan is estimated at 9 years maximum and usually much shorter.

While overall the IUCN lists the Suni as being of “least concern” with an estimated population of 365,000 individuals distributed along Africa’s eastern coast and adjacent interior from Kenya to South Africa, these diminutive antelope are considered to be endangered in South Africa, where they are found only in northern Kwazulu-Natal and the Pafuri and Punda Maria areas of the Kruger National Park (their numbers in Kruger were supplemented by several introductions from KZN, but confirmed sightings remain few and far between). The total population in Kwazulu-Natal is estimated at around 1,500, with the biggest single populations being the estimated 750 protected in the Tembe Elephant Park and around 360 in the uMkhuze Game Reserve. Poaching and loss of habitat are considered the major reasons for their decline in South Africa. Interestingly, burgeoning populations of elephant, nyala and large predators in conservation areas have a severely negative effect on the Suni, as they suffer heavily from predation and the larger herbivores denude the lower shrub layer so crucial to the Suni’s survival. Thankfully Sunis breed well in captivity and this offers hope for their reintroduction into areas from which they’ve disappeared locally.

Black-throated Canary

Crithagra atrogularis

The Black-throated Canary is a timid and inconspicuous seed-eating bird inhabiting open and dry grasslands and savannas, usually near a reliable source of water. They forage mainly on the ground and, in addition to seeds, will also feed on flowers, nectar and soft-bodied insects.

Black-throated Canaries may breed throughout the year, but there’s a definite peak in the summer months. While they form flocks numbering up to five few dozen when not breeding , when nesting pairs are monogamous, solitary and territorial. Their nests are cup-shaped and built of grass and fine twigs in a fork on a tree branch or at the base of a palm frond. The female takes sole responsibility for the incubation of the clutch of 2-4 eggs over a 2 week period. Both parents feed the chicks, which are able to leave the nest when they’re between 2 and 3 weeks old. They are small birds; adults measure around 11cm in length and weigh only about 12g.

The Black-throated Canary is a common bird throughout most of South Africa and can be found in all our provinces with the exception of the Western Cape. Beyond our borders their distribution is very patchy but stretches as far as Gabon in the west and Uganda and Kenya in the east. The species is considered to be of least concern.

African Grass (Sooty) Blue Butterfly

Zizeeria knysna

The African Grass Blue, or Sooty Blue, Butterfly, is common and widespread in every corner of South Africa. Furthermore, they’re found throughout the rest of our continent, in Arabia, Cyprus and Spain. It occurs in every habitat, from desert to forest, and is one of the most abundant butterflies on suburban lawns, having a special fondness for open grassy areas. Adults are on the wing throughout the year and have a wingspan of only about 2-2.5cm.

Common Sandpiper

Actitis hypoleucos

The Common Sandpiper is one of the world widest-ranging bird species. Their breeding range encompasses almost all of Europe and northern Asia, stretching from Spain to the Russian Far East. During the northern winter these birds then migrate to southern climes, spanning from sub-Saharan Africa to Australia and the islands of Oceania. The IUCN considers them to be of least concern and estimate a total population of at least 2.6-million adult birds. During our summer they can be found virtually anywhere in South Africa where suitable wetland habitat is found, though much more rarely in the dry north-western parts of the country than elsewhere, with the first birds arriving in July already and most departing again by the end of April.

Common Sandpipers inhabit a very wide range of water-associated habitats, from sewerage works and farm dams to pristine wetlands and estuaries. Their diet includes invertebrates and small vertebrates, like tadpoles, and occasionally fine seeds plucked from the mud and shallow water. They’ll even pluck leeches from the backs of hippos and crocodiles! While feeding they’re usually solitary or in small groups, though larger numbers congregate to roost.

Adult Common Sandpipers have a wingspan of about 40cm, measure about 20cm in length, and weigh approximately 47g.

Black Mamba

Dendroaspis polylepis

Unquestionably one of the most deadly snakes on the planet, the Black Mamba is rightly feared wherever it occurs. It is found in three widely separate parts of the African continent and in South Africa it may be encountered in most of Kwazulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo and parts of the North West Province.

Named for the black inside of its mouth rather than its body colour and sporting a characteristic and ominous coffin-shaped head, a Black Mamba may lift up to 40% of its body length upright – meaning a large Black Mamba could deliver a bite to the head or torso of a fully grown man. The venom of the Black Mamba is neurotoxic and causes paralysis of the voluntary and involuntary muscular systems. It will bite readily and repeatedly if cornered or threatened, delivering 100-400mg of venom in a single bite; 10mg is sufficient to kill an adult human from respiratory paralysis in less than an hour though more usually within 7 to 15 hours without treatment with the correct type of anti-venom.

The Black Mamba inhabits savannas and forests and are territorial with specific spots in its home range where it likes to rest, sun bathe, etc. They are diurnal and very active, fast and agile hunters both in the trees and on the ground. They feed on birds and small mammals.

After mating, usually in the months of spring and summer, female Black Mambas lay around 12 eggs in termite mounds or similar hide-aways. The eggs hatch about three months later. Young Black Mambas grow rapidly and from a length of 40-60cm when they hatch may grow to 2m in length by the time they’re a year old. Even newly hatched babies are deadly venomous. Adults measure up to 4.5m long, the biggest venomous snakes in Africa, and may have a lifespan of 20 years.

The IUCN considers the Black Mamba to be of least concern.

Amethyst Sunbird

Chalcomitra amethystina

The Amethyst Sunbird, also known as the Black Sunbird for the male’s dark plumage, is naturally a bird of coastal forests and moist savannas and woodlands that have become quite well adapted to suburban parks and gardens, and actually extended its distribution thanks to these most suitable, if unnatural, habitats. In common with most other members of the sunbird family their diet is mostly made up of nectar from a wide variety of plants and supplemented with occasional soft-bodied insects.

Amethyst Sunbirds breed throughout the year, with a peak in nesting during spring and summer. Despite being considered monogamous, the male plays surprisingly little part in the rearing process. The female builds the nest alone, using spiderwebs to hold together an oval-shaped structure consisting of leaves, bark, twigs and the stems and blades of grass with an entrance hole on the side. The female is also solely responsible for the incubation of the clutch of 1-3 eggs over a 3 week period. The male even leaves most of the feeding of the chicks, which fledge before they’re 3 weeks old, to the female.

Being one of the larger sunbirds, weighing around 15g and measuring about 14cm in length, Amethyst Sunbirds are quite aggressively dominant over most other members of the family when they mix at prized flowering plants. They are usually seen singly or in pairs.

The Amethyst Sunbird is widely distributed through South Africa – from Cape Town all along the southern Cape coast and through the Garden Route to the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal, north-eastern Free State, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and North West. Beyond our borders they’re found as far as the Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia. The IUCN considers it to be of least concern.

Addo Elephant National Park: Celebrating 90 years of conservation success!

Today we celebrate the 90th birthday of the Addo Elephant National Park.

By the early 1900’s the Eastern Cape’s wildlife was being exterminated at an alarming rate. The last remaining lions and black rhinos in the region did not see the arrival of the year 1900, and only about 140 African Elephants remained around the Addo district, which was rapidly developing into an important agricultural area, leading to conflict with the newly established farmers. The government’s decision to intervene was not good news for the elephants. In 1919 they appointed Major P.J. Pretorius to destroy the elephants, and by 1920 he had killed 114 of them and caught 2 for a circus. Only 16 elephants remained when public sentiment swung in their favour and the wanton killing ended, and when the Addo Elephant National Park was proclaimed on 3 July 1931, only 11 elephants were left. Initially, the Park was not fenced to keep the elephants in and when they left the Park they were at the mercy of the “civilisation” that wanted to destroy them all, so the first Park manager made the decision to feed them with citrus and other fresh produce to keep them within his boundaries. Slowly but surely their numbers started growing, but by the time the Park, then only 2,270 hectares in size, was finally surrounded with an elephant-proof fence in 1954, there was still only 22 elephants at Addo. The unnatural practice of feeding the elephants, which in the end was done more for the entertainment of tourists than for the elephants’ sake, ended in 1979. By then the herd numbered about 100 animals, but Addo’s elephants have responded wonderfully to the protection they’ve been afforded since the Park’s proclamation, and today number over 600! Along with the elephants, the last free-roaming herds of African (Cape) Buffalo that occurred in the then Cape Province, as well as the unique and endemic Addo Flightless Dung Beetle, finally found a secure refuge. In subsequent years the Park’s area was expanded and species that fell into local extinction were reintroduced.

With the Addo elephants now finally living in a safe refuge, the focus at Addo Elephant National Park is no longer on saving a single species. Today, the park’s management is concerned with the protection of the enormous diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna encompassed within its boundaries, which covers an expansive area of over 178,000 hectares stretching from beyond and across the Zuurberg range to the coastal forests and dune fields of Alexandria. The Park protects portions of no less than five of South Africa’s seven distinct terrestrial biomes, these being subtropical thicket, fynbos, forest, grassland and Nama-Karoo, not to forget to mention the portion of marine environment protected around Algoa Bay’s St. Croix and Bird islands which is important breeding sites for endangered seabirds. Addo is the only National Park in South Africa that can claim to protect the “Big Seven” – the famed “Big Five“ of ElephantLionBlack RhinoBuffaloLeopard, together with the Great White Shark, and Southern Right Whale.

Addo Elephant National Park protects a total of 95 mammals species. The Park also boasts a list of 417 bird species, and if that isn’t enough, visitors also have a chance of spotting any of the more than 50 reptile species or 20 kinds of frogs and toads that call Addo Elephant National Park home. The Park’s most famous invertebrate inhabitant undoubtedly is the Addo Flightless Dung Beetle (Circellium bacchus), this being only one of 5 places they are still found. These interesting insects make use of elephant and buffalo dung as food, either for themselves or rolled into brood balls in which they lay a single egg before burying it in soft sand and on which the larvae then feeds when it hatches.

The Addo Main Camp is the Addo Elephant National Park’s first and biggest tourist facility. Camping and a wide variety of accommodation (as well as a swimming pool) is available to overnight guests. There are picnic sites for day visitors, an underground hide overlooking a waterhole frequented by all the Park’s animals and floodlit at night (we even saw a brown hyena there when we visited in December), a birdwatching hide overlooking a small artificial wetland, a self-guided discovery trail, guided drives and horse rides, a fuel station, restaurant, shop and excellent interpretive centre where young and old can learn more about the Park and its inhabitants. Elsewhere in the Park guests can overnight at the luxury, full service and privately-run Gorah, Riverbend and Kuzuko-lodges, or in one of the Park’s own camps at Nyathi, Matyholweni, Kabouga Cottage, Mvubu Campsite, Narina Bushcamp, Langebos and Msintsi. Between the Main Camp and Matyholweni guests have access to an extensive and well-maintained network of all-weather game viewing roads, while other areas of the Park can be explored along hiking trails or 4×4 trails.

The easiest way to reach the Park is along the N2 highway from Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), turning off to the gate at Matyholweni just before you reach the small town of Colchester on the bank of the Sundays River, about 45km from PE’s airport.

Addo Location


Black Harrier

Circus maurus

The Black Harrier is an endangered bird of prey that is found only in South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia. The IUCN estimates that there are less than a 1000 birds left, and that their population is still declining due to loss of breeding habitat to agriculture, associated pesticides, alien plants and urban development.

Most Black Harriers breed along small streams and wetlands in the coastal and montane heathland of the Western and Eastern Cape during the months of late winter and spring, while outside the breeding season they roam further afield over the arid Karoo and grasslands of the Highveld and as far as the Midlands in Kwazulu-Natal. They form monogamous pairs when breeding (pair-bonds do not last beyond the season) with the male being responsible for defending the pair’s territory. Their nests are small platforms of twigs, leaves and grass built on the gound at the base of a bush or a tuft of grass or sedge, often quite close to the nests of other breeding pairs. Clutches consist of 1-5, usually 3, eggs which are incubated by the female for 5 weeks while the male provides food for her at the nest. The male continues provisioning food to the female and growing chicks for the first few weeks after they hatch. The chicks leave the nest when they’re about 6 weeks old and become fully independent two or three weeks later. Adult Black Harriers have a wingspan of about 1m and females, which are quite a bit larger than males, weigh around half a kilogram.

Black Harriers feed on frogs, birds, reptiles and small mammals like mice caught by flying very low over the ground and dropping hard onto their unsuspecting prey.