Plants and Animals of the Kalahari Desert

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Though it's a desert, Africa's Kalahari is anything but barren. A slew of diverse plants and animals reside in the Kalahari Desert, providing food, shelter and protection for one another. Some plants and animals exist only in the Kalahari, which covers most of Botswana and parts of South Africa and Namibia.

Rainbow and storm clouds over the Kalahari Desert, South Africa
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Camel thorn and shepherd’s trees are the most common types of tree life found in the Kalahari Desert. Camel thorn trees are specific to the Kalahari, but shepherd’s trees can be found elsewhere. Both trees grow somewhat close to the ground.

Camel thorn trees are made of very hard, dense wood that has been used as firewood. However, camel thorn is now a protected species. Many other species in the Kalahari rely on camel thorn for food, shade and protection, making the tree a necessary part of the Kalahari ecosystem. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the camel thorn is its large, nutrient-rich, crescent-shaped seeds.

Shepherd’s tree, or tree of life, is a small species with a dense crown and a smooth, white trunk. The tree provides nourishment for animal and plant species. The roots can be used to make a coffee substitute or beer, and the berries can be eaten and made into jam or other dishes. The leaves and roots of shepherd trees have been used to treat hemorrhages and eye infections.

Camel Thorn tree's in the Kalahari, South Africa
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The Kalahari Desert has many thorny, clustering and evergreen shrub species, but perhaps most noteworthy to the Kalahari ecosystem is the Kalahari desert melon and ghaap, or hoodia cactus.

Kalahari desert melon is a valuable, edible resource for humans and other animals in the desert because of its hydrating properties. The seeds can be pressed to make oil, which is used to moisturize skin and hair. The Kalahari melon looks much like watermelon, and it can be eaten raw or cooked.

Ghaap, or hoodia cactus, is a flowering cactus that has been used by traditional Kalahari hunters and gatherers to suppress hunger and thirst during extensive hunting trips through the desert. Because of this discovery, hoodia has most recently been developed into a diet aid.

Kalahari desert melon
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Kalahari Desert animals include antelope species gemsbok and springbok, the Kalahari Desert lion and the meerkat.

Gemsbok bulls have distinct, straight horns that can grow to 3 feet in length. The horns provide protection from predators. The other antelope, springbok, looks similar to the gemsbok and can jump to heights of 6 feet or more. The springbok is known for its seemingly exuberant behavior.

The Kalahari lion, unlike other species of lion, hunts small species, maintains a large territory and lives in a small pride. Kalahari lions have lighter fur than typical lions, and males have a black mane instead of a golden mane.

More common than most of the other Kalahari animals is the meerkat. The small meerkats travel in large gangs, preying on insect and mongoose species. Meerkats have small bald spots on their undersides that absorb heat.

Meercat family in Kalahari Desert, Botswana
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