The Kalahari Desert – WorldAtlas
Where is the Kalahari Desert?
More than a third of Africa is covered with desert. The Kalahari is the second largest on the continent, behind the Sahara, and the sixth in the world. It covers approximately 360,000 square miles (932,000 square km) of land, occupying up to 70% of Botswana, an eastern part of Namibia and the northern part of South Africa. To the west, it merges with the coastal Namib desert.
Topography of the Kalahari Desert
Essentially, the topography of the Kalahari Desert can be characterized by its three distinct features: sand sheets, sand dunes, and salt marshes.
Located in the eastern part of the Kalahari, the sand sheets date back 2.5 million years. As the name suggests, these are vast expanses of sand shaped by the wind to resemble calm, rippling waves. Unlike sand dunes, they are generally not very high, but can have great depths exceeding 200 feet.
The Kalahari sand dunes are the largest continuous expanse of sand on Earth, even longer than the dunes of the Sahara. They generally run from the north to the Namib Desert in the west. Each dune is about a mile long and can grow up to 200 feet high.
Thousands of years ago, the Kalahari Desert was teeming with life in part because of the number of lakes that meandered across the country. Over time, these bodies of water dried up, leaving behind large salt marshes, flat surfaces of white earth devoid of vegetation.
Due to its rugged terrain, the Kalahari does not contain a complex network of highways. The few roads that there are connect the various local administrative centers and the sparse agricultural lands. A jeep or other durable vehicle is needed to cross the desert.
Climate of the Kalahari Desert
Some experts consider the Kalahari to be a subtropical desert, while others see it as an arid, sandy savanna. During the summer, the temperature can rise to 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 C), dropping over 30 degrees at night. During the winter, the temperature can drop to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 C), well below freezing.
Generally speaking, areas are considered desert if they receive less than 10 inches of rain per year, or if the rate of evaporation is double the amount of precipitation. The southwestern part of the Kalahari meets this standard, experiencing periods of thunderstorms in summer separated by six to eight months of dry spells. The northeastern part, however, is technically not a desert as it receives up to 20 inches of rain each year, due to moisture from the Indian Ocean.
Drainage and soils of the Kalahari Desert
In the southern part of the Kalahari Desert, sparse water points are the only source of surface water. The surrounding area is largely devoid of moisture as the little rain it receives instantly seeps through the deep sand. There are many underground water reserves, vestiges of the ancient lakes that roamed the country. In the north, however, heavy rains tend to flow into various water bodies, such as the Okavango Delta and the Cuando River.
The soil of the Kalahari Desert is extremely dry. The high levels of saline solution in salt marshes are often toxic and prevent extensive vegetation. The parts that are not covered with dry earth are buried under red sand.
Plants and animals of the Kalahari desert
Few plants grow in the dry regions of the Kalahari Desert, mostly shrubs or tufted grasses. Shallow rooted plants do not do well because of the depth of the sand; only trees with deep roots tend to survive. In contrast, the wetter northern regions are home to a variety of plants ranging from camelthorn to shepherds.
Due to the amount of rainfall in these northern regions, the Kalahari is home to more animals than most of the world’s deserts. Some of the animals that roam the Kalahari Desert include wildebeest, kudu, elk, and gemsbok, as well as animals commonly associated with African iconography such as lions, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, giraffes. , zebras, warthogs, meerkats and baboons. Many birds and reptiles have also made their home in the Kalahari Desert.
Historical significance of the Kalahari desert
Experts estimate that the Kalahari Desert formed 60 to 135 million years ago. Its first inhabitants were the San peoples, various groups of indigenous peoples residing in southern Africa. Also known as the Bushmen, they have lived in the Kalahari for tens of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, isolated from other cultures. Armed with various tools such as bows and arrows, they survived local animals, insects, fruits and roots.
It was a semi-nomadic people, moving with the seasons. When they settled down, they lived in individual huts built with easily accessible materials like branches and tall grass. They worshiped a god named Chikara who protected them from starvation by letting themselves be hunted in the form of wild animals.
About 3000 years ago, the Bantu peoples embarked on a great southward migration, absorbing many southern cultures. The San resisted by retreating deeper into the Kalahari Desert.
Human settlements in the Kalahari desert
Today, the Kalahari Desert is inhabited by the San and Bantu peoples, and many Europeans.
As mentioned above, the San people were traditionally hunter-gatherers, but few continue to follow the way of life of their ancestors. They are no longer nomadic, many of them having been relocated to new villages against their will by the government of Botswana. They usually keep livestock for a living, in many cases for other people. Regardless, the San are the oldest continuous inhabitants of the region.
The Bantu peoples – Tswana, Kgalagadi and Herero – are indigenous ethnic groups who speak one of the 500 Bantu languages. They first arrived in the desert through migration, but more recently the Herero settled in the area as refugees from the German-Heros conflict of 1904-1907. Those who are not involved in any major industry like mining live in villages of no more than 5,000 people. Water sources determine where they settle. Raising cattle forms the basis of their economy and is a measure of their social status.
The first Europeans arrived in the early 1800s as travelers, traders, ivory hunters, and missionaries. Many San peoples were killed or enslaved. At the time, the only European settlement was the district of Ghanzi. Today, much of the white population of the Kalahari works for local governments or is engaged in private companies.
Threats to the environment and wildlife of the Kalahari Desert
Several factors threaten the environment and wildlife of the Kalahari Desert. While it is a way of life for many communities, large-scale cattle ranching leads to overgrazing, resulting in loss of vegetation. Therefore, it increases the effects of desertification, the process by which fertile land becomes arid. Additionally, herders often seek out and kill carnivores such as jackals to preventively protect their livestock.
The mining of metals and precious stones like diamonds also disrupts the delicate desert ecosystem. Mines strip the land of little vegetation, upset the balance of local wildlife, and often displace human settlements.
Political conflicts associated with the Kalahari Desert
Disputes over the Kalahari Desert currently exist between the government of Botswana and the San peoples who wish to return to a more traditional way of life. Strict rules prohibiting hunting within the boundaries of national parks and other protected areas have made it nearly impossible for them to adopt the hunter-gatherer way of life of their ancestors.
Territorial conflicts also exist between minors and local indigenous peoples. Diamonds were first discovered in the Kalahari Desert around thirty years ago, leading to the creation of some of the largest diamond mines in the world. In many cases, these mines were built on the ancestral homeland of the San, ultimately forcing the local population to either relocate to other areas or live under the occupation of these for-profit mining companies.