Kalahari Gemsbok National Park
This park is so arid, harsh, and inhospitable that it has survived almost unchanged since ancient times, suitable only for creatures adapted to endure these trying surroundings. It is a place to see plants and animals so adapted, some seen in few other places.
Gemsbok, the antelopes for which the park is named, seem able to exist almost without water, drinking largely to satisfy mineral needs. They don’t perspire, thereby conserving valuable moisture. When temperatures rise to 113°F (45°C), their own body temperatures can rise to or above that level for up to eight hours (an internal temperature at which most animals would suffer brain damage) through a special system of blood vessels which cools the blood before it reaches the brain.
Burchell’s sandgrouse come to water holes or rivers, sometimes in flocks of hundreds, not only to drink and bathe but to soak breast feathers with water which they carry back in this way to thirsty nestlings.
Many animals are nocturnal, spending the day in burrows, coming out only in cooler evenings to hunt and forage. Perhaps for this reason, the park is rich in owls, notably the scops, white-faced scops, and pearl-spotted owls, and giant eagle-owls. Bat-eared foxes are equipped with huge ears that not only help cool blood vessels but enable them to hear and track down insect prey which survive by spending most of their lives underground.
Kalahari lions seem larger than lions elsewhere because of their heavier manes which may help insulate them from the heat.
Camel-thorn trees along dry riverbeds are supported by extensive root systems which reach deep below the surface. In their branches are sociable weaver birds, well-named, which build huge communal nests looking like haystacks that may have 50 or so nest chambers. Handsome little pygmy falcons take over some of these.
Sheltered underneath are underground colonies of bloodthirsty sand tampans, small ticks that do not attack native antelopes but seek out domestic cattle and humans, which they find with carbon dioxide sensors that are attracted to exhaled breath. Somehow they differentiate.
Important, perhaps indispensable, food plants are tsamma melons and gemsbok cucumbers, both 95 percent moisture. They make subsistence possible for a wide range of insects, birds, rodents, sometimes hyenas and honey badgers. Antelopes unearth and eat succulent cucumber roots.
Supported by all these are the carnivores—lions, leopards, cheetahs, black-backed jackals, and smaller varieties. Among the park’s 215 bird species is a population of predators ranging in size from pint-sized pygmy falcons (length 7.5 inches/19.5 cm) to lappet-faced vultures with wingspreads up to 103 inches (2.7 m), known to kill small mammals including hares.
Sometimes herds of thousands of blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, and elands move about in search of water.
Otherwise wildlife is widely spaced and sparse in any one section of this huge semidesert savannah reserve, where temperatures can range from almost 125°F (50°C) on a hot midsummer day to below freezing at night in midwinter. Most wildlife tends to be concentrated in and near the Nissob and Auob riverbeds, though both these are dry except after heavy rains. In dry times animals congregate around boreholes maintained for them.
It is an immense reserve, some 3,700 square miles (9,600 km2), adjoined on the other side of the Nissob River by Botswana’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, 10,279 square miles (26,600 km2). Their combined area is larger than Belgium and almost twice the size of Kruger National Park. There are no barriers between the two so wildlife can travel freely over the whole area, and recently the two countries entered into an agreement to manage them as one ecological entity, to be called Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Best times are March and April, end of the rainy season, when animals, including large raptor flocks, are concentrated along riverbeds. Afterward they disperse among the red sand dunes.
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KALAHARI GEMSBOK NATIONAL PARK
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