by Matthew Sterne on April 13, 2016
5 min read

The desert. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. And it’s not a great place to go looking for a cup of tea either.

There are some resilient animals, however, who thrive in the desert.

The Sahara may be the biggest desert in the world, but the Namib in Namibia is the oldest. It is brutal and inhospitable – its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean results in temperature changes that can range from bitter cold to blazing hot, often in the same day. This is one of the driest regions of the world, receiving only half an inch of rain per year. And yet, a select few animals survive here.

Beautiful in a barren, eerie way the Kaokoland and Damaraland regions in the far north of Namibia are home to five special animals.

Desert-adapted Elephants

Desert-adapted elephants of Namibia

  • Desert-adapted elephants are found in only two places in the world; in Mali and in the northern reaches of Namibia.
  • These elephants differ slightly from their more plentiful cousin, the African elephant. The desert elephants can appear leaner and taller due to their diet and have bigger feet than other African elephants.
  • The larger size of their feet allows them to walk with more ease across the very soft desert sand, an adaptation that is useful as these elephants have been known to travel up to 200 kilometres in search of water.
  • The desert elephants have slightly longer trunks to allow them to dig down into the sand in search of underground water.
  • These elephants only drink water every three to four days. This is a massive reduction when you compare them to the elephants in Etosha that drink up to 200 litres of water per day.
  • The presence of far fewer species of plants as a source of nourishment has resulted in their tusks being more brittle.

Desert-adapted Rhinos

A dester-adapted Black Rhino in Namibia

Image credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth

  • The rhinos are mostly nocturnal so that they can avoid the excessive heat of the day.
  • Their horn is slightly longer and thinner than a regular Namibian black rhino, this helps desert rhinos to forage in barren environments.
  • These rhinos are also unlike other black rhinos in that they are usually found on their own and not in small groups. However, the mother will stay with her calf for up to two and a half years which is long enough for her to teach her young how to survive in the tough conditions found in their habitat.
  • As a result, many desert rhinos are ‘lone rangers’ and they cut striking figures on the orange and brown backdrops of the natural landscapes.
  • These animals roam in a 25,000 square km region, which is only a little bit smaller than the whole of Belgium! The rhinos are also experts at traversing this massive area and have home ranges of between 500km2-600km2.
  • The number of desert rhinos dwindled to near extinction in the 1980s, but since then, thanks to the work of organisations like Save the Rhino Trust and Challenge4ACause, the population of these national treasures has increased five times!

Desert-adapted Lions

Namibia's desert-adapted lion

Image credit: Flip Stander

  • The desert lions are genetically the same as the big cats in Kenya, but their evolution has enabled them to survive where their east African cousins cannot.
  • Incredibly, they need very little water and derive most of the liquid from the prey they consume.
  • They feed on gemsboks, ostriches, and occasionally on seals.
  • Their coats are slightly thicker to deal with the colder temperatures and they travel greater distances to find food.
  • Namibia receives international recognition for its conservation efforts: for example, the communal conservancy programme has led to wildlife numbers increasing – particularly throughout the country’s arid areas.
  • In 1998, Doctor Flip Stander started an intensive research project on the desert lions, termed The Desert Lion Conservation project, aiming to collect sound ecological data, to address human-lion conflicts, and to develop a conservation strategy.
  • When Dr. Stander began, there were twenty desert lions in the area. Today, that number is closer to 150.

Desert-adapted Fog Beetle

The astonishing desert-adapted Fog beetle in Namibia

  • Inherently, water is hard to come by in the desert. But not for the fog beetle. The ingenious fog beetle relies on the foggy conditions near the coast where the cold Atlantic Ocean meets the hot land, to collect drinking water.
  • In the early mornings, the beetle stands on a small ridge of sand and faces the breeze. It strikes a pose with its head facing upwind, its body angled at 45° and its stiff, bumpy outer wings spread against the damp breeze.
  • Minute water droplets from the fog gather on its wings and trickle into the beetle’s mouth. Genius.
  • The fog beetle has been known to drink up to 40% of its body weight during its morning gymnastics.
  • Researchers at MIT have emulated the fog beetle’s technique and potential uses include extracting moisture from the air and creating fog-free windows and mirrors.

Namib Desert Horse

Wild horses of the Namib

Image credit: Wild Horses of Namibia Foundation

  • OK, so the Namib Desert Horse isn’t found in the northwest but makes the list due to its intriguing history.
  • It is probably the only feral herd of horses residing in Africa, with a population ranging between 90 and 150.
  • The origin of the Namib Desert Horse is unclear, but locals speculate they have been here since ‘German times’.
  • Whatever their origin, the horses eventually congregated in the Garub Plains, near Aus, Namibia, the location of a man-made water source.
  • Despite being considered an exotic species within the park, they are allowed to remain due to their ties to the country’s history and draw as a tourist attraction.
  • Their existence has aroused controversy. Some people argue that the horses are of historical and scientific value and that they should not be removed. They’re also a tourist attraction. Many others think that the horses, as a non-native species, compete with the indigenous wildlife (mainly gemsbok, springbok, and ostriches) for the sparse vegetation.

Now, about that tea…