Moon rocks and sand dunes
As the Namib Desert stretches along the coast between Namibia and Angola, the northernmost part is called the Kaokoveld Desert. The Kaokoveld falls within the northern summer rainfall area, with sporadic thunderstorms that barely quench the parched landscape between October and March. Despite this barren landscape comprised of towering sand dunes, valleys, and gravel plains, it is one of the richest deserts in the world. Amidst the hardpan, dry riverbeds and small waterholes provide sustenance to many species. Sparse vegetation is scattered across the landscape, with colorful lichens covering stones. Plants are dominated by desert grasses, which explode in a blanket of grass after intermittent rains. One of the most unusual plants found in the Kaokoveld and Namib is Welwitschia, with individuals ranging upwards to 2,500 years old.
The Namib and Kaokoveld Deserts have been arid for at least 55 million years. By acting as a relatively stable center for the evolution of desert and dry savanna species, it has had a profound influence on the region’s biodiversity. This has resulted in a unique array of species, high levels of endemism, and advanced adaptations to arid conditions. In the Kaokoveld, the high number of endemic animals is made up largely of reptiles. Of the 63 species recorded in the ecoregion, seven are strictly endemic. The Angolan sand lizard is an amazingly fast lizard that can be seen in the heat of the day dashing over the sparsely vegetated sand and gravel flats. The desert plated lizard is another endemic species that, when disturbed, disappears into the dunes with a swimming motion. Endemic geckos are also distinctive. The Kaoko web-footed gecko, for example, has transparent skin and a large head with immense jewel-like eyes.
The cool air from the Benguela Current in the Atlantic collide with the warm inland air to produce a layer of fog that acts as a water source for many species. It is controversial whether this fog provides water to higher plants, but it is well known that it is the life-blood for desert-adapted insects and other organisms such as spiders, solifuges, and scorpions. Many species have developed unusual adaptations to the desert environment. White lady trapdoor spiders build holes in the sand to catch prey. Others, such as the wheeling spiders, curl into a ball and roll down the slopes of dunes to evade their predators. The dry riverbeds are life veins in this desert environment and contain a higher diversity of species than found in the adjacent desert. These riverbeds are home at times to desert elephants, black rhinoceroses, and giraffes in search for water and food. Elephants may travel up to 37 miles (60 km) per day between springs often located by digging holes. Here, water seeps from below to become a source of water for other animals, too. Although these species are not endemic to the ecoregion, the elephant and the black rhino are endangered. The black rhino population in this area is the only unfenced population of black rhino in the world and is estimated to include over 100 individuals. Other species found within the ecoregion are Hartmann’s mountain zebra, kudu, springbok, gemsbok, lion, and cheetah. Lions, brown hyenas, and black-backed jackals have been seen scavenging fish and larger marine mammal carcasses on the beach.
Cause for Concern
Although the Namibian side of the Kaokoveld Desert has remained relatively intact because of its arid conditions and consequent low population density, the biggest threat is from wildlife poaching. Poaching of black rhinos has been particularly problematic. In 1991, dehorning began in an attempt to stop the poaching of these rhino which are the last unfenced black rhino population in the world. The civil war in Angola has left the Angolan side of the Kaokoveld Desert under-protected. The area is open to poachers, timber harvesting, human settlement, and agriculture. Today there are few viable large mammal populations, even in the largest protected areas.
For more information on this ecoregion, go to the World Wildlife Fund Scientific Report.All text by World Wildlife Fund © 2001