Succulent Karoo: the beautiful desert teeming with wild animals
This endangered species has only been found in two places, both inside the Succulent Karoo Desert. It is just one of the few creatures found in this otherworldly landscape that stretches between Namibia and South Africa, the most biodiverse arid desert on the planet, according to UNESCO.
Home to over 6,300 species of plants – thousands of which are found nowhere else on Earth – massive spring wildflowers and 70 types of scorpions, the Succulent Karoo is an abundant wilderness.
But the human demands on this place are relentless, from overgrazing by livestock to poaching of exotic plants and sand mining. Only a quarter of the desert remains in pristine condition and conservationists are calling for action to study the region and protect it.
Cobus Theron of South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) says the situation is urgent. âIt’s not sufficiently protected and the race is to try to get more land under formal protection,â he said.
Theron explains that it can be difficult to get the public to understand that a seemingly barren desert can be a valuable ecosystem that needs to be protected. âAlthough this environment looks strange and harsh, it is actually very fragile,â he adds.
Full of plants
Unusually for a desert, the Succulent Karoo has an abundance of plants – one-third of the world’s succulent species. Succulents – which include cacti and aloe plants – can survive scorching temperatures by storing moisture in their stems and leaves. Fleshy and dotted with brightly colored flowers, they provide the food and moisture essential for the richness of Succulent Karoo insects, such as beetles, termites, and long-tongued flies.
In turn, these insects attract insectivorous animals, such as scorpions and golden moles, to the desert. Several kinds of turtles, birds and lizards of the Succulent Karoo are unique to this region.
In spring, the plants of the Karoo take on color, a phenomenon that attracts crowds of tourists every year. But this abundance can also attract the wrong kind of attention.
Poaching and overgrazing
When you hear the words ‘illegal wildlife trade’ rhinos or tigers may spring to mind, but a growing illegal succulent plant market is fueling poaching activity in the Karoo region, says Marienne De Villiers , ecologist for the South African government conservation organization, CapeNature. .
In 2015, CapeNature officials caught a couple who had illegally collected more than 2,200 plants near the Knersvlakte nature reserve. De Villiers notes that scorpions, baboon spiders and some species of lizards are also preyed upon by poachers in the region.
The Succulent Karoo also suffers from heavy and historic overgrazing, says De Villiers. Overgrazing by ostriches, sheep and farmed cattle can seriously damage the desert landscape, especially during droughts, she adds. In areas where rainfall is scarce, the environment is very easily damaged and has a longer recovery period.
Other areas of the Succulent Karoo have been mined for uranium, diamonds and sand, leaving “big scars in the landscape,” De Villiers says.
For environmentalists working to protect the endangered creatures of the Karoo, one of the biggest challenges is identifying exactly where they live in the vast desert.
Ian Little is a researcher at the University of Cape Town and a member of the EWT. He tries to protect Van Zyl’s golden moles, but they are exceptionally difficult to find.
âIf you go up slowly, they can feel you coming from far away and sinking deep,â Little explains. “They’re moving too fast for us to catch them – but they can’t move fast if, say, someone comes in and plows an area. They don’t spread well and don’t travel long distances.”
But drones could offer a solution. In the nearby desert of Nama Karoo, a team of scientists successfully used drones last year to track riparian rabbits. These critically endangered creatures don’t breed like the proverbial rabbits – a female has only one or two cubs per year. They are threatened with extinction due to hunting and habitat loss.
The drone team, from John Moores University in Liverpool, UK, worked with EWT and used the expertise of environmentalists and astrophysicists to help track the rabbits.
Drones equipped with infrared sensors were sent over the desert and a machine learning algorithm then helped identify the recorded species. The team confirmed five sightings – unheard of for this extremely rare and shy species.
Little hopes to use this technology to find golden moles in the Succulent Karoo. These animals emerge to hunt insects at dawn and dusk, and as temperatures drop at night in the desert, careful timing of drone flights would allow scientists to detect the body heat of moles against cooler sands.
âThe next step, once we know what the distribution (of the golden mole) is, will be to officially protect these areas,â Little said.
Guardians of the Desert
According to the Environmental Literacy Council, an international non-profit organization, only 2-3% of Succulent Karoo is under official protection.
CapeNature is working to change that. He created a biodiversity management program in 2002. Rather than buying land to protect it, which would be too expensive, the program recruits landowners and farmers to create wildlife refuges in their own backyards. -Classes.
Villiers and his colleagues determined which private areas were most important for biodiversity, then persuaded landowners to engage in conservation projects, ranging from environmentally friendly farming practices to the creation of new nature reserves on the land. private land.
âWe were coming in as foreigners, really,â says Villiers. “But now I’m dealing with a really wonderful group of landowners who are completely committed to conservation.”
Over time, these projects have helped create buffers and corridors for wildlife throughout the Western Cape, helping to protect the Succulent Karoo and its rare species.
However, they can only be protected if people are interested in these “breathtakingly beautiful landscapes,” says Villiers. She hopes the stewardship program will educate people about the value of the desert for years to come. âThere is still so much that we don’t know about the Succulent Karoo,â she said, âand there are probably still a multitude of species waiting to be discovered.â