The Kalahari Desert is a large semi-arid sandy savannah in southern Africa extending 350,000 square miles and covering much of Botswana as well as parts of Namibia and South Africa. With huge tracts of excellent grazing after good rains, the Kalahari is a semi-desert environment which supports more animals and plants than a true desert, such as the Namib Desert to the west.
The Kalahari sand dunes, some of which stretch into the Namib Desert to the west, compose the largest continuous expanse of sand on earth. These dunes are covered with a relative abundance of vegetation, including grass tussocks, shrubs, and deciduous trees that have evolved to make use of the area’s infrequent precipitation and wild swings in temperature. In summer, the heat can top 115 degrees Fahrenheit and on winter nights, lows can drop to 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the wetter north and east of the Kalahari, open woodlands exist. These are made up mainly of a type of acacia known as the camelthorn tree. Endemic to the Kalahari, the camelthorn is a crucial part of the desert ecosystem, manufacturing nutrients that encourage other plants to grow around its base and providing shade for animals. Amazingly enough, a variety of animals have adapted to the extremely dry conditions including meerkats, brown hyenas, the Kalahari lion, giraffes, common warthogs, jackals, chacma baboons, and several species of antelope (including the eland, gemsbok, springbok, hartebeest, steenbok, kudu, and duiker), and many species of birds and reptiles. Numerous other birds and mammals utilize the desert, but most are migratory, venturing into the Kalahari only when adequate water is present.
The Kalahari is also well known as the home of the San people, a diverse collection of nomadic hunter-gatherers who have lived in this desert for more than 20,000 years and are believed to be the oldest continuous residents of southern Africa. Today, few San survive exclusively by hunting and foraging; many have adopted sedentary lifestyles in towns. However, about 100,000 members of this ethnic group still live along the fringes of the Kalahari.
The largest protected areas within the Kalahari are the adjacent Central Kalahari and Khutse game reserves in Botswana, and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which joined South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park to create the continent’s first Peace Park in 2000. Kgalagadi, which means “place of thirst,” covers 15,000 square miles in and around the Kalahari.
While the Kalahari is sparse in wildlife compared to the lush regions of Africa, a herd of antelope making its way across the vast desert or Kalahari lion slinking down the dunes is certainly a sight to behold on any African safari.
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