Saving secrets of the Namib desert

2015-05-20 13:52 - Scott Ramsay
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At first sight, there is no life. The desert dunes alongside the Atlantic Ocean near Swakopmund are beautiful, but seemingly bereft of any living thing.

The Namib desert is one of the driest in the world, explained Chris Nel from Living Desert Adventures near Swakopmund. “We had a 1,5mm last week, but other than that, we’ve had no rain for four years.”

But if you know where to look, then this shy, secretive desert comes alive with unique creatures that thrive in the harsh environment.

Chris kneels down at the base of a sand dune, and gently plucks a Palmato gecko from its daytime burrow. It’s luminous, translucent body glistens in the early morning light. It’s small, dainty and one of the most photogenic creatures I have seen, and seems unphased by us.

The Namib is probably the most biodiverse desert on the planet

“Check out its webbed feet,” Chris shows me. “That helps the gecko move easily across the sand and to dig their burrows, where they spend their days. And they don’t have eyelids, so they’re often licking their eyes to keep them moist.”

Because they’re nocturnal, Chris is quick to help the gecko back into its burrow.

Further along, Chris finds the tunnel of a cartwheeling spider, whose name comes from its remarkable ability to escape predators by rolling at 44 times a second down sand dunes.

It’s only found here, in the Namib dune belt. Chris digs it out with his hands, and while I take some photos, the spider jumps around on four of its eight legs, warning me to keep my distance.

“They have large fangs,” explained Chris, “which can inflict a painful bite, but it has only mild venom.”

A desert that is far from lifeless

There are, according to some estimates, a spider every three or four metres in the Namib dune belt. This desert is far from lifeless.

On a clump of Dolob bushes, Chris finds a Namaqua chameleon, a large, ponderous creature which seems totally at home in the desert. It’s one of the largest chameleon species in South Africa, sometimes reaching up to 25 cm. It changes colour to thermoregulate, turning black in the morning to absorb the sun, and a light grey during the day to reflect the heat.

“These things will eat beetles, crickets, scorpions, spiders…even younger chameleons.”

We see tracks of a sidewinder snake, but they’re old, and we can’t track it down unfortunately. These snakes are one of the smallest in the world, and move across the hot sand in a sidewinding fashion, creating beautiful patterns as they go.

Just a bit along, Chris finds a shovel-snouted lizard, a small, feisty, diurnal species which immediately clamps its jaws onto his finger.

“Sharp teeth!” Chris winces, but he let’s the lizard hang onto his finger, before gently removing it and putting it back on the dune, where it literally dives into the soft sand to escape.

This coastline also hosts the largest scorpion in the world, a highly venomous Buthidae species, reaching up to 20cm.

Where does all this life come from? They key to the Namib desert, Chris explains, is the regular misty conditions that provide up to 150mm of moisture every year.

Although this is mostly surface moisture, it makes a huge difference to the desert, and it’s why the Namib is probably the most biodiverse desert on the planet.

People were driving all over the dessert just for fun

This biodiversity was seriously threatened for several decades, when thousands of tourists and locals on quadbikes used to ride all over the coastal dunes.

In 2002, when Chris started working as a guide in the area, quadbikes were becoming a huge craze.

“People were driving all over the Namib Desert just for fun. There were more quadbikes here than any other place on earth,” Chris told me.

Chris soon realized the damage that was being done. He’d find small creatures like geckos and snakes squashed by the bikes. And when he took a flight to take photos of the landscape, he was heart-broken by what he saw: thousands and thousands of tracks crisscrossing his beloved desert.

A study by ecologist Hugh Berry ascertained that the Namib coastline near Swakopmund was the most damaged in the world.

“The tracks of quadbikes on the base of the dunes, where the soil is harder, never go away. You can still see the tracks of oxwagons and the footprints of oxen from 1880 in some areas.”

Dorob National Park created to control the access of quadbikes and people

In time, Chris and other concerned environmentalists worked with government to create the Dorob National Park, which controlled the access of quadbikes and people into the coastal dunes.

“When we started cleaning up the landscape, we picked up 697 kilograms of toilet paper,” Chris said.  

The huge 1600km long Dorob National Park (whose name means “Dry Place” in the Nama language), surrounds Swakopmund, and was proclaimed in 2010, extending from the Kuiseb River south of Walvis Bay north to the Ugab River in Damaraland.

It’s the youngest in Namibia, and a worthy addition to the network of protected areas in the country. More than 40% of the country is under some sort of conservation protection, one of the highest figures in the world.

While I’ve visited Etosha National Park to see elephants or lions, and the Fish River Canyon to see the huge landscape, a visit with Chris Nel to the dunes near Swakopmund is as impressive to me.

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