Africa

The Kalahari Desert is a difficult place to survive -- but it's bursting with life

By Rebecca Cairns, CNN

Updated 3:29 AM ET, Thu July 9, 2020
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The Kalahari Desert spans the borders of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. During the summer, temperatures soar to 40°C (104°F) but in winter, it can drop below freezing. Despite the harsh conditions, many animals have adapted to live there.
To survive in the Kalahari, the gemsbok -- a large antelope -- digs for water-storing plants and roots. It minimizes energy expenditure by slowing its metabolism and breathing, while special blood vessels in the brain act as a cooling mechanism.
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While desert elephants can drink up to 200 liters (52 gallons) in a single day, they can go for several days without water while searching out an oasis. Ranging across Namibia and the Kalahari Desert, these elephants have unusually large feet: it is thought this adaptation stops them sinking into the sand as they walk hundreds of kilometers in search of water. The herds are led by matriarchs which remember the locations of watering holes and underground water pools that are key to the elephants' survival. Christophe Courteau/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Competition for food is fierce in the Kalahari, and being at the top of the food chain doesn't make it any easier for cheetahs. A 2017 study found Kalahari cheetahs are lighter on average than cheetahs in other parts of Africa. Males feast mostly on young antelope, while female cheetahs opt for smaller mammals such as hare. Perhaps most surprisingly, the study found that they rarely consume water. Two female cheetahs, which were tracked for a month, were not seen drinking once. Shutterstock
While they may look cute, painted dogs -- also known as the Cape hunting dog, or African wild dog -- can run at speeds up to 65 kilometers per hour (41mph) and are ruthless hunters. The open terrain of the Kalahari is ideal for this speedy predator, enabling packs to hunt large prey including wildebeest and gazelle. An endangered species, the painted dog is particularly vulnerable to habitat loss. Alamy
While their signature feather crown and slender legs give these birds a regal air, the secretary bird is more mobster than monarch. Hunting reptiles, amphibians and insects, it stomps larger prey to death before consuming them whole. Found largely in the northern part of the Kalahari near watering holes on open plains, the four-foot-tall birds can easily spot a potential meal. Uniquely for a bird of prey, they hunt only on the ground. Arterra/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Like the desert-adapted cheetahs, lions in the Kalahari hunt expansive territories in small groups, to maximize their chances of a hearty meal. While gemsbok is their favored prey, they sometimes eat smaller animals such as porcupines and foxes. Kalahari lion manes are darker than the typical yellow-orange shade found on lions in the Serengeti. Christophe Courteau/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
While the common saying is an elephant never forgets, research suggests it's zebras that have a super memory. A 2011 study examined the migration patterns of zebras, and found that after fences were removed, herds resumed a migration route in the northern part of the Kalahari Basin, which hadn't been trekked in 50 years.
A 2016 study tracked a different herd which migrates between the Chobe River and the Nxai Pan, in northern Botswana. The zebras make a round journey of 955 kilometers (593 miles) despite the fact that there are similar plains in closer proximity, suggesting to researchers a genetic or cultural reason for returning to this particular location.
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Once a common sight across the region, black rhino numbers have declined significantly in the past 50 years. They are critically endangered although conservation efforts have led to a small increase in their numbers in recent years. Despite the two horns perched on its nose, the black rhino is a relatively docile creature and in addition to poaching, is vulnerable to attack by lions and hyenas. Shutterstock
Meerkats live in groups -- called gangs or mobs -- of up to 50. Their underground burrows allow them to survive the harsh desert conditions and stay cool in the heat. A designated "sentry" watches out for predators while the group forages for food -- anything from berries to bugs -- and warns the group of incoming danger with a piercing warning call. Dave Watts/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
The cape pangolin, also known as Temminck's pangolin or the ground pangolin, forages for ants and termites among the red sand of the Kalahari Desert. This nocturnal creature is the world's only mammal clad entirely in scales, which are designed to protect the animal from predators when it rolls into a ball. Although they are made from keratin -- the same substance found in human hair and nails -- pangolin scales have been in high demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), threatening the pangolin's future. Alamy
Also known as Verreaux's eagle owl, these nocturnal hunters will eat just about anything they can get their talons on. Scanning the low grass of the savannah, the owls pick up reptiles, insects, small mammals, and even other birds and owls for dinner. While cannibalism makes them far from cuddly creatures, they do have a romantic side: researchers believe these monogamous birds mate for life and stay in small family units to raise their young. Eva + Helmut Pum/McPhoto/ullstein bild/Getty Images
A carnivorous predator that lives and hunts in a large pack called a clan, the brown hyena does not migrate like many other desert animals, but settles in one place, from where it roams up to 38 kilometers (24 miles) each night to hunt. In recent years, their populations have declined due to poaching, traps and hunting. Shutterstock
Also known as the spiral-horned antelope, kudu have long been hunted by humans for their intricate corkscrew horns. They prefer the tree-covered bush of the northern Kalahari, as open plains leave them vulnerable to predators like cheetahs, hyenas, and hunting dogs. Their white-striped coat helps them to camouflage in the bush, while they enjoy shade from the midday sun. Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images