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Covering a full 84 percent of Botswana’s land area, the semi-arid Kgalagadi terrain dominates most of the country. Refuting the classical perception of desert as a barren, vegetation-less, useless land, the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) is rich in natural resources.
These include its sweeping grasslands that feed not only its wildlife populations, but also its swelling cattle herds (numbering approximately 2 million), thus supporting the country’s third largest industry - cattle ranching, and its mineral wealth, namely diamonds, which have fostered and sustained dramatic economic growth for the past 35 years.
A land of singular, often hidden, beauty, the Kgalagadi is intensely alive with an astonishing diversity of plant and animal life. It has broad variations in vegetation, supporting several savanna types, namely grass, shrub and tree savanna.
The Kgalagadi landscape often appears as grassy plains dotted with low shrubs, interspersed with trees or belts of trees, which often stand on sandy ridges. Though a newcomer’s first impression may be one of ‘sameness,’ there are subtle topographical interruptions to the desert’s essentially flat surface, including channels, fossil valleys, dune features and pan depressions.
Following a season of good rain, the desert is transformed, covered with lush, green grasses, and flooded pans – a source of rebirth and rejuvenation for both humans and animals.
Many desert animals, including springbok, gemsbok, eland, and even the Kalahari lion, are supremely adapted to its semi-arid conditions, and can live without water, though they will drink if water is available.
Antelope derive their moisture by feeding at night and early morning (when plants regain moisture), by eating succulent plants (such as wild watermelons or wild cucumbers), and by remaining inactive during the heat of the day to conserve body moisture.
Kalahari lions appear to gain their moisture from the body fluids of their prey. Other common Kgalagadi animal species include wildebeest, zebra, kudu, red hartebeest, duiker, steenbok, and the predators, lion, cheetah, leopard, and both spotted and brown hyena.
The Kgalagadi is essentially a basin into which sediments have continually been deposited and covered with sand. It is a region of great ecological, vegetative, geomorphological and climatic diversity. At its northern reaches (gabon, Congo and Zaire), the Kgalagadi lies in the humid tropics and is dominated by parts of the Congo drainage system. At its core, in Botswana and neighbouring countries (South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola), it is an arid to semi-arid region with little surface water.
The Kgalagadi is the largest continuous area of sand on earth, touching nine African countries. With an approximate area of 2.5 million sq kms, it extends through 30 degrees of latitude and embraces several ecological zones.
Within Botswana, the Kgalagadi embraces two unique geographical regions: the Makgadikgadi pans, which research reveals to have been a huge prehistoric lake, suggesting that the Kgalagadi was at one time much wetter than it now is, and the wetland delta system of the Okavango.
Human occupation of the Kgalagadi goes as far back as the Early Stone age. Its Middle Stone age inhabitants, the San, developed survival strategies superbly adapted to – and in harmony with - their environment, masterfully extracting food resources from both the land and animals. Today, settlements, including cattle farms, dot many areas of the desert.
Five game reserves and national parks have been set aside in Botswana’s vast share of the Kgalagadi. These are: Central Kalahari game Reserve, Khutse game Reserve, Makgadikgadi pans game Reserve, Nxai Pan National Park, and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. All are remotely situated, separated by vast distances; and for many visitors, the sensation of unending space and pure isolation are the principle destinations.