Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – Wildlife

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.

There’s three kinds of plants that really are characteristic of the Kalahari. The first is the Camel Thorns – huge trees growing in the beds of the Auob and Nossob River and about which we’ll be sharing more soon. Then, there’s the Gemsbok Cucumbers and Tsamma Melons; the fruits of which are made up of around 90%+ of water and both an invaluable source of moisture to all kinds of wildlife (including some carnivores).

At the one end of the scale there’s a multitude of invertebrates and small reptiles and mammals taking up their respective positions in the food pyramid. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park allows a glimpse into their natural cycles and behaviours uniquely adapted to their arid environs.

The Kalahari might best be known for the grand variety of raptors that soar its airways, but birdwatchers will not be disappointed by the variety of other, less fearsome but equally fascinating, feathered fauna that find a home here.

The Rest Camps of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park are excellent places to look for owls, by day or night!

Predators, both large and small, abound in the Kalahari. Africa’s three species of big cat are often seen (though the leopard eluded us when we visited in June 2018), and is one of the main reasons people undertake the long journey to visit here.

The Gemsbok is so iconic of the Kalahari that both parks that today make up the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park and South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park) was named after it. These beautiful animals are of the most commonly encountered large mammals in the Park.

And while there may not be as great diversity among the large herbivores in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park as in some of Africa’s other great conservation areas, the antelope, giraffe and warthogs occur in such numbers that it belies the harshness of their environment.

We’ll dedicate the next few posts on our blog to discover some of the Kalahari’s residents in more detail.

 

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – History and Tourism

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 second 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.

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.

Relative locations of Twee Rivieren, Mata Mata, Nossob and Union’s End in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

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.

The location of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

In the next installment, we’ll be showing you the marvelous wildlife spectacle the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park has to offer.

 

Western Rock Skink

Trachylepis sulcata sulcata

Western Rock Skinks inhabit rocky outcrops in the Karoo and semi-deserts of the Northern Cape and Namibia, where they hunt by day for their principally insect prey. They are usually seen in pairs and hide in cracks and crevices at night or when danger threatens. Females may give birth to 2 broods of between 3 and 5 young in the summer months. Western Rock Skinks grow to 8cm long (excluding their tail, which can be shed to escape predators). These very active lizards are commonly seen along the trails in the Augrabies Falls National Park.

Namaqua Porkbush

Ceraria namaquensis

The Namaqua Porkbush is a hardy, slow growing, succulent shrub that grows up to 6 feet tall, excellently adapted to the extremely harsh semi-desert environment of rocky hills where it grows on the border of Namibia and South Africa’s Northern Cape. The bark of young shoots of the Namaqua Porkbush can be used to make a kind of elastic rope. The Augrabies Falls National Park is a wonderful place to see these tenacious plants, which seems to be able to grow in even the most meagre of substrate.

Pririt Batis

Batis pririt

Common in dry savanna habitats, especially those dominated by thorn trees, and along wooded drainage lines in more arid areas, the tiny Pririt Batis (10g in weight, 12cm long) follows an entirely insectivorous diet.

It is mostly the female’s responsibility to build the delicate cup-shaped nest using spiderweb and fine plant material inside the foliage of a tree or shrub. Breeding in this species has been recorded almost throughout the year (though there seems to be a spring peak), with clutches of 1-4 eggs incubated by the female for a little over 2 weeks. Both parents look after the chicks once hatched. The chicks leave the nest when they’re two weeks old but may remain with their parents for up to 6 weeks more. These little birds normally move around in pairs or small groups, often together with similarly sized birds of other species.

The Pririt Batis is distributed from southern Angola through Botswana and Namibia to South Africa‘s arid western provinces (Free State, North West, Eastern, Western and Northern Cape). The IUCN lists it as being of least concern.

Augrabies Flat Lizard

Platysaurus broadleyi

The Augrabies Flat Lizard, or Broadley’s Flat Lizard, is a South African endemic occurring in a tiny piece of the Northern Cape Province, centered on the Augrabies Falls where they are extremely common (one of the highest densities of any lizard anywhere on earth) and a familiar sight to visiting tourists. They grow to a length of around 8cm, excluding the tail, and their exceptionally flat bodies allow them to escape predators by hiding in the narrowest of crevices.

Preferring arid, sparsely vegetated, rocky habitats, Augrabies Flat Lizards follow an omnivorous diet that includes mainly insects (often caught by jumping into the air!), ripe Namaqua figs and pieces of food dropped by tourists. Augrabies Flat Lizards are active throughout the year and do not hibernate in winter, though they are active for shorter periods then. In the hot summer of their arid environs they will hide in the shade during the heat of the day. Their breeding season stretches from spring to early summer, during which the colourful males will display to the drab females and each other, and get involved in serious territorial disputes if need be. Females may produce two clutches of eggs in a season, the first young emerging from late December.

Augrabies Flat Lizards featured in a terrific clip on a BBC Wildlife programme presented by Sir David Attenborough. The IUCN considers the Augrabies Flat Lizard to be of least concern.

Orange River White-eye

Zosterops pallidus

Orange River White-eyes occur only in South Africa’s central and western provinces and into Namibia, where they commonly inhabit thorny riparian vegetation and well-planted gardens, feeding primarily on insects and other invertebrates. Little is known about the breeding habits of these tiny birds (9g in weight, 11cm long), though their nesting season apparently spans spring and summer.

The IUCN considers the Orange River White-eye to be of least concern. Many authorities consider it a subspecies of the closely related and very similar Cape White-eye, with which it sometimes interbreeds. We had our first encounter with the Orange River White-eye during a recent visit to Augrabies Falls National Park.