Unforgettable Kalahari

Climate change is possibly taking a toll on the Kalahari, but it continues to be a big draw for its range of wildlife and the sheer experience of camping under a clear night sky and indulging in stargazing.

Published : Jan 25, 2020 07:00 IST

A mother cheetah with cubs amidst a sea of golden yellow grasses in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana.

A mother cheetah with cubs amidst a sea of golden yellow grasses in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana.

THE moon nearing its fullness was bright and brilliant in the clear African night sky this September as we, 12 wildlife enthusiasts from India, waited at the northern Matswere gate of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (52,800 square kilometres) in Botswana for permission to make our way to the camping ground deep inside inside the reserve. The staff politely refused to let us drive at night to our camping site. “If there is a breakdown of a vehicle on the way, you will be in big trouble,” one of them said.

We spent the night at a camping ground near the entrance, disappointed by the two-hour delay because of the breakdown of one of our three vehicles earlier in the day about 80 km from our starting point, the town of Maun. Until the replacement vehicle arrived, we spent the time observing the landscape around us.

The mopani woodland ( Colophospermum mopane ) had been left behind closer to Maun. The vegetation was dominated by thorn trees—such as Acacia tortilis , one of the common acacias of the Kalahari—and the rain tree ( Lonchocarpus capassa ). The high browse line on the trees indicated heavy feeding by goats and cattle. The landscape seemed to be devoid of grass, and the fences on either side of the road were broken in many places. There were many Tswana goats feeding on either side of the road and they were moving from tree to tree looking for fallen leaves, flowers and fruits. All of them looked healthy. The Tswana cattle breed is adapted to the hot and dry climate of southern Africa and produces good quality beef.

After two hours, our replacement vehicle arrived, and we resumed our journey. That was not the end of our problems, though, as the vehicle towing the trailer carrying our camping supplies got stuck several times on the sandy road, requiring our younger colleagues to push it to get it going again.

As our vehicles struggled along, we wondered about the pair of fences that ran parallel to the road on one side. The gap between the fences was about 15 metres and it had a rank growth of grass, while the thorn scrub woodland on either side of the road was almost devoid of grass. Later, we learnt that they were the veterinary fences built to ward off foot-and-mouth disease in beef cattle by preventing wild ungulates from mingling with the cattle reared on the other side of the fences. Beef brings in a good amount of foreign exchange to Botswana, mainly from countries in Europe.

As we drove along, we saw a lot of old elephant dung on the right side of the road. The dung trail ended as we approached the Veterinary gate, some 20 km before the Matswere gate. Baker, the driver of the vehicle this writer was in, said that elephants came this far during the rainy season, which begins in November and lasts until May. One of the drivers, named Teenage, was also a naturalist. Also travelling with us, in the vehicle with the trailer, were two assistants (one was a driver too) and a cook, all three local people. The cook, Gotty, was immensely cheerful and industrious. We were amazed by her efficiency as she cooked with only three vessels and on a fire grate. She even baked bread and cake in the camp. As she was so caring, we took to calling her Gottyma.

It was nearly 11 p.m. when we reached the camping site near the Matswere gate. The assistants pitched our tents, and Gottyma prepared dinner using firewood we had brought from outside. The collection of wood is not permitted inside the reserve, which is largely a thorn bush habitat.

Mark and Delia Owens

As we ate our dinner sitting around a campfire in the bitterly cold night, we discussed the popular book Cry of the Kalahari written by Mark and Delia Owens, originally published in 1984. After they graduated from the University of Georgia, United States, and got married, this young couple, with a meagre savings of $6,000, left for the Kalahari to study prey and predators. On January 4, 1974, they flew to Johannesburg in South Africa and took a train to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. There they bought an old Land Rover, named it the “Old Grey Goose”, and embarked on a 720-km journey to Maun, then a village, where the waters of the Okavango Delta reach the sands of the Kalahari Desert. Their drive north along a muddy and primitive road was filled with hardships, and they eventually reached their destination on May 2 with only basic camping materials and provisions, including 50 gallons (189 litres) of fresh water from the Boteti river in a drum. They established their camp in a solitary island of acacia trees in Deception Valley, an old grass-covered riverbed where water used to flow in the distant past.

They lived there for seven years studying brown hyena, lions and ungulates. Their hard work, dedication and meticulous data collection earned them many friends and admirers. In early 1978, they were even provided with a Cessna plane, which Mark learnt to fly, and they tracked their radio-collared lions and from the air followed the migratory herds of wildebeest and other ungulates and recorded the painful story of these animals struggling to reach Lake Xau for water. Thousands died owing to lack of water, largely because of the miles of veterinary fences.

While living in their camp, they often saw more than 3,000 springboks grazing, lions frequently came and rested near the tent, a leopard they called Pink Panther often spent time in the tree above their camp, brown hyenas were frequent visitors and black-backed jackals called in chorus at night. To Mark and Delia Owens, this was the “cry of the Kalahari”. They made excellent workable recommendations to save brown hyenas, lions and the migratory wild ungulates of the Kalahari.

At bedtime, Teenage alerted us that lions and leopards came to the waterhole, hardly 50 m from the camping site, and that we should ensure that there were no potentially dangerous animals around when we went out to relieve ourselves at night. We slept on mattresses on the uneven ground, with a short blanket. Contrary to the well-managed protected areas in India where at night one can hear the alarm calls of langur, barking deer, chital and sambar, the forest around us, with its many antelope species and their predators, was ominously silent.

The next morning, we spent some time near the waterhole to watch bird species come for a drink, the noteworthy ones being the red-billed spurfowl, the crimson-breasted shrike, the red-faced mousebird, the glossy starling and the southern pied babbler. Even a black-backed jackal approached the waterhole to have a drink, although it moved away on seeing us.

After breakfast, we drove across a landscape dominated by a sea of golden yellow grasses and ash-coloured bushes. An A. tortilis tree was in full bloom, its cream-coloured flowers standing out against the cloudless blue sky. We saw steenboks and duikers, which are among the 10 small antelopes of Africa. We found it difficult to differentiate between them from a moving vehicle, but Baker could identify them easily. When we saw our first springbok standing in the shade of an acacia tree, we prodded Baker to stop the vehicle. He stopped reluctantly, telling us that we would see hundreds of them in the next few days. Both male and female springboks have horns. They reportedly have the ability to live without water for years, and the prominent characteristic of this antelope is pronking , that is, leaping into the air up to a height of 2 m while running. They do this when they are chased by predators such as cheetahs, and the leap is supposed to indicate to the predator their fitness and to dissuade it from chasing them! In the past, the springbok numbered in the millions, and even today the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers it a Least Concern Species.

One remarkable mammal we saw in Deception Valley was a colony of Cape ground squirrels. There were numerous burrows where the squirrels were seen and they were extremely agile, darting from one corner to another. They used their bushy tails as umbrellas to shield themselves from the hot sun. It is reported that if a Cape cobra approaches the colony, the squirrels use their tails to tease it until it gets so tired that it gives up and goes away. By feeding on roots, bulbs and grasses, the squirrels can live without drinking water.

We reached our camping site amidst a grove of acacia trees at around noon and waited for Gottyma, who was coming in the trailer truck and bringing our lunch. September is the beginning of the hot season, and it was uncomfortable to sit under the scanty shade of the acacia trees, so some of us sat inside the vehicle to escape the harsh sun. A Cape ground squirrel, a crimson-breasted shrike and several glossy starlings came to the camp in search of food, which indicated to us that they are used to being fed by campers. Around 4 p.m., we got a message from a vehicle passing by that we were at the wrong campsite and the vehicle and trailer with Gottyma had gone to the camping site actually assigned to us, which was 80 km away.

Sighting of cheetah

Hurriedly, we left for our new destination. On the way we were lucky to see a cheetah with three cubs at the kill of a small animal, maybe a duiker or a steenbok. We drove around the cheetah at a safe distance, took pictures and quickly left that place as Baker said it would become dark before we reached our destination. On the way we saw gemsboks, the large and beautiful antelopes native to southern Africa. Its population, supported by hunting programmes, is reported to be stable. There were also bat-eared foxes, which use their large pinnae for thermoregulation and to pinpoint the location on the ground of insects on which they feed; kori bustards, one of the two heaviest flying birds in the world (the other one is the great bustard) whose population is reported to be declining; northern black korhaans, the males of which jump up in the air during mating like the lesser floricans in India do; and ostriches, which are bred in captivity for their feathers, eggs, skin and meat, although in the wild their population is reported to be decreasing. As Baker had assured us, we saw several groups of springboks.

Soon it became dark. There were several roads, and the signage was hard to read at night, but suddenly we came upon our vehicle with the trailer. The third vehicle had broken down and was yet to reach the camp. It was annoying that the vehicles were not maintained properly for a journey into the bush: bald tyres, a non-working jack and a lack of spare tyres were some of the problems we faced. We set up camp in an open area, and some of us went looking for firewood to start a fire as it had become exceedingly cold. The third vehicle arrived eventually, and all of us sat around the fire and did some unforgettable stargazing in a sky unsullied by the lights of civilisation. We went to sleep without food, but some of our colleagues who stayed awake until 3 a.m. had some curd rice and chicken curry.

Kalahari lions

The next day, soon after breakfast, we left for the next camping site, where we had permission to stay for three nights. The memorable sightings that day were of a young lion resting in the shade of an acacia bush at midday and of a cheetah family in the evening. Mark and Delia Owens recorded that Kalahari lions survived without drinking water for about eight months, and in the dry season they dispersed into huge ranges not to seek water but to find prey that had dispersed. The water requirements in the dry season were met with the fluids from their prey. They found that the Blue Pride, one of the five prides they had tracked with telemetry, had nine individuals, and the pride increased its range from 700 sq. km in the cool season to 4,000 sq km in the dry season. The Kalahari lions could be part of the Okavango-Hwange population reported some years ago to number nearly 2,300, and the total estimated area available to the population was about 95,000 sq km. All over Africa, there are about 30,000 lions, and the population is on the decline as a result of loss of habitat and prey and human persecution.

Late in the evening, we located the cheetah family, which was habituated to visitors. The mother was about to go on a hunt and the caracal-sized cubs followed her. Driving along the road, we observed the family. In one place we saw an adult male gemsbok standing amidst the bushes. When it saw the cheetah, it moved through the bushes, crossed the road and stood in an open area. Hearing the sound of an animal moving through the bushes, the cheetah approached the gemsbok, but on seeing the bull with lethal horns weighing about 240 kg, the cheetah changed her mind, crossed the road followed by her cubs and disappeared into the vast grass and scrubland beyond. Possibly, she was looking for a springbok, which weighs around 40 kg and is therefore the most suitable prey. The Kalahari cheetah population is reported to be around 100, and estimates for Botswana made a little over 10 years ago record a population of a little less than 2,000. Lions kill cheetah when the opportunity arises.

On September 13, the day before our departure, we spent an unforgettable hour near one of the two artificial waterholes in the reserve, in Sunday Pan, which is in the midst of an acacia grove (the other waterhole is in Letiahau). There were large numbers of gemsboks and springboks drinking and moving around. One black-backed jackal, either old or sick, was lying in the shade of the trees and did not even move when we parked our vehicles nearby. Then, we had the luck of the day as a brown hyena came to drink water. The springboks moved away and even the gemsboks were a little wary. The hyena was extremely thirsty and drank for nearly 10 minutes without paying any attention to the ungulates around it.

Mark and Delia Owens have written conclusively that brown hyenas are scavengers; they never saw them killing even a hapless newborn springbok fawn. Hyenas scavenge alone but lead a communal life where cubs are suckled by other lactating females. All members of the clan carry food to the den to feed the cubs. Dholes, or Asiatic wild dogs, on the other hand, do not carry food to the den but regurgitate it to the mother dhole and the pups. Since brown hyenas are not hunters, Mark and Delia Owens opined that the animals should not be shot if they are seen feeding on a cow carcass on cattle ranches because most likely the cow died of some other cause.

Bushmen and the reserve

Just before we left the waterhole, a group of greater kudu came to it; the adult males had impressive horns. As a result of hunting programmes that support conservation, the population of this majestic antelope is about 5,00,000 in southern Africa.

The British colonial powers set up the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the 1960s as a reserve for the Bushmen to continue their traditional way of life, and at that time it was the largest protected area in the world. The Bushmen led a traditional way of life in relative peace in settlements situated throughout the park. However, the need to expand the economy of the newly independent and very poor Botswana became a priority, and the Bushmen were perceived as a hindrance.

When rumours of the presence of diamonds and uranium in the reserve emerged in the 1980s, the Botswana government tried to resettle the Bushmen. In the process, the Bushmen were harassed and forced out of the park. Various conservation organisations and individuals interested in their welfare pleaded that the Bushmen should be allowed to continue their ancient way of life in the reserve. In December 2006, the Botswana High Court ruled that they should be allowed to live in the reserve. But those who are familiar with the ways of the Bushmen believe that this reprieve came too late and that the culture of the Bushmen had changed forever because of the continuing restrictions on their traditional ways of life, as also their addiction to alcohol.

Not a true desert

The Kalahari is not a true desert. It has none of the shifting sand dunes that characterise the Sahara or the Thar Desert. It is extremely vulnerable to drought, and as a result any rain that falls evaporates quickly. The daytime temperature in January can be close to 50 °Celsius. As Mark and Delia Owens so beautifully phrase it, the Kalahari has no secret springs, no lakes of standing water, no streams and so is a semi-desert with no oases.

As everywhere else in the world, climate change is possibly taking a toll on the Kalahari. We crossed the Boteti, which is about 40 km from Maun, twice and there was no water, and beef cattle were grazing on its dry riverbed. In April 1974, Mark and Delia Owens swam in the river, which was full of water lilies and other aquatic plants, and during their two-day stay near the river, they caught catfish and bream and had excellent meals. Baker informed us that these days water from the Okavango Delta may flow into the Boteti in July.

We did not see hartebeest, zebra, wildebeest or eland, which were common in Deception Valley when Mark and Delia Owens were there. Baker said that these animals were there in the vast game reserve but in much reduced numbers. We saw only one giraffe, on September 14 when we left the park.

Mark and Delia Owens wrote that two things were essential for survival in the Kalahari: field-worthy vehicles and water. That is true even today: we suffered because of problems with our vehicles and had no water with which to bathe during the four days of our stay, and on the last day there was a problem even with drinking water. Yet the Kalahari is worth visiting to see the setting sun painting the sky rosy-red behind the acacia trees, the groups of elegant gemsboks walking gracefully across the vast scrubland and grassland, the groups of springboks resting in the shade of the acacia trees and the male northern black korhaan leaping into the air.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, WWF-India and the Corbett Foundation.

S. Murali is a retired professor of Ayya Nadar Janaki Ammal College, Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu.

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