Animals of the Skeleton Coast

Adapted to a Desert Habitat Part I - Fauna of the River Courses
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To the uninitiated the wealth of fauna at the Skeleton Coast comes as a revelation. The river courses with their relatively rich supply of food and water sustain large species such as elephant, giraffe, black rhino and lion, as well as many smaller species, while springbok, ostrich and gemsbok are characteristic of the plains.

Utilizing windblown detritus from the interior as food and ocean fog as moisture, a remarkable community of interdependent dune-dwelling insects, reptiles and small mammals with specialized adaptations has evolved in the dunes. Thermoregulation, coloration, breeding strategies and nomadism have ensured the survival of a surprising variety of desert birds. Coastal birds find their sustenance in the rich plankton and pelagic resources of the Benguela Current, which also supports several seal colonies, while the beaches are kept clean by ghost crabs, jackal and brown hyena.

Fauna of the River Courses

The animals which frequent the dry riverbeds of the Skeleton Coast are not necessarily typical desert fauna, in that they have regular access to water from spring-fed water holes and feed on vegetation which also occurs in the interior. The larger species such as elephant, lion and black rhino move up and down the dry riverbeds, often increasing in numbers when food becomes scarce in the interior.


The elephant, Loxodonta africana, of the Skeleton Coast decreased considerably in numbers after the implementation of the Odendaal Plan, designed by the South African government to implement its homeland policies in Namibia, resulting in the reduction of the Etosha National Park by 77 percent. Because farms and homelands surrounding the park cut off natural migration routes, the eastern and western populations became separated.The former converged in Etosha, where their numbers increased so much that it became necessary to start a culling program.

The western population, which is now more or less confined to the western Kunene Region and lower reaches of the Skeleton Coast rivers, on the other hand, decreased in numbers as a result of inadequate protection and consequent poaching and trophy hunting, compounded by the extreme drought conditions of the early 1980s. By the 1990s however, these populations had stabilized and are currently on the increase. In a 1992 game census over 300 elephants were counted in the north-western areas.

To survive in the desert and semi-arid regions these elephants range widely, traveling up to 60 kilometers (37.27 miles) a day over rugged terrain between the different springs. They also dig holes, referred to as gorras, in the dry riverbeds, into which water seeps from below, providing a source of water for the other animals of the desert. The water in these holes is sometimes too deep for the baby elephants to reach, in which case it is drawn up by the parent in its trunk and deposited into the youngster's mouth. The elephants feed mainly on the vegetation in the river courses, such as mopane bark, tamarisk, reeds and rushes, as well as the nutritious pods, bark and leaves of the ana tree.

Black rhino

Black rhino, Diceros bicornis, were at one time plentiful in both Damaraland and Kaokoveld, frequently moving down the river courses into the Skeleton Coast Park. As a result of uncontrolled poaching, however, they have become extremely scarce and are now seldom seen at the Skeleton Coast, although the occasional track indicates their presence.

During the 1960s Bernabe de la Bat, then Director of the Department of Nature Conservation and Tourism, became greatly concerned about the continued survival of black rhino in Namibia. According to a census the entire population consisted of 90 animals, all of which were in the north-western part of the country, an area where the department had no jurisdiction and where poaching was rife. A capture and relocation program was launched, during which 76 rhino were caught in the Kaokoveld and transported to the Etosha National Park. Today there is a viable population of over 300 black rhino in Etosha.

To protect the dwindling number of rhino in the unprotected northwestern areas, a bizarre but effective emergency management action was taken by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. In 1989 a group of rhino was dehorned in a mountainous area of Damaraland. The rhinos were sedated with darts shot from a helicopter and the horns sawn off above the bone. To guard against infection the stumps were painted with Stockholm tar. These dehorned rhino have been carefully monitored and to date no apparent behavioral changes have been observed. A second group of rhino was dehorned in 1991.

Dehorning programs have also been implemented in the Etosha National Park and the Waterberg Plateau Park.

There are currently over 100 Diceros bicornis in the arid western section of the Kunene Region, which represents the world's only increasing population of black rhino in the wild. South Africa's and Kenya's increasing populations are in reserves and sanctuaries.

As rhino need to drink every second day, they wander within a home range as far afield as 100 km to 150 km (62.11 to 93.17 miles), along regular paths which link up with water holes. They feed on the twigs, leaves and bark of acacias and other bushes and trees, as well as on euphorbias, welwitschias and hoodias, usually in the early morning and at dusk. The greater part of the day is spent resting in the shade of a tree or bush.

Coastal lions

Lion, Panthera leo, appear and disappear in the river courses as the game on which they prey comes and goes, depending on the grazing conditions in the interior. They feed mainly on the gemsbok and springbok of the plains, lying in wait for them at water holes, which is where the lions of the desert are usually encountered.

After unusually good rains in the Kaokoveld in 1982, the gemsbok and springbok of the plains moved inland. Virtually overnight the lions at the coast found themselves with very little to eat. Instead of following the game to the interior as they had done in the past, they resorted to feeding off seals and stranded whales which they found on the beaches. Taking the seals by surprise as they lay sleeping, they killed them and dragged them to a sheltered place, sometimes for several kilometers when there were young to be fed.

This unusual behavior had not been recorded before. In 1987, to monitor the movements of the"coastal" lions, as they were now referred to, a lion and lioness were fitted with radio telemetric collars. The male dropped his collar after a few months and seems to have disappeared from the Skeleton Coast environs, but the female carried hers for almost five years, until, in the early 1990s, she and her three cubs were shot and killed just outside the park in the Hobnob River environs by a local communal farmer, who maintained that the lions were threatening his livestock.

There are currently no resident lions in the Skeleton Coast Park although the odd individual still wanders into the area from time to time.

Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis, moving westwards from the Kunene Region, are seen in the river courses from time to time, as well as parties of hamadryas baboons, Papio hamadryas, also referred to as chachma baboons. Smaller animals which occur commonly in the dry riverbeds are the crested porcupine, Hystrix africaeaustralis, the small-spotted genet, Genetta genetta, caracal, Caracal caracal, the African wild cat, Felis sylvestris, and the Cape hare, Lepus capensis, a small hare not unlike a rabbit in some of its features.

An impressive bird occasionally seen in some of the river courses is the lappetfaced vulture, Torgos tracheliotus, a large bird with a wingspan of up to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) or more, which nests on the top of tall acacia trees. These vultures are rare, although they have a wide distribution over the African continent. They are extremely vulnerable during their long breeding cycles, and build their nests away from those of other species. They are easily disturbed by mining and tourist activities, as has been borne out by the decreased breeding rate of the lappetfaced vultures of the Namib-Naukluft Park. Because these birds breed only twice in three years, or three times in four years, and because they fly great distances in search of carrion, sometimes more than 200 km away from their nests, the species presents a considerable conservation concern. They are threatened mainly by the poison which farmers use against predators such as jackals.

The Skeleton Coast's tree-lined river courses harbor a wide variety of smaller birds, such as the common Cape sparrow, Passer melanurus, mountain chats, Oenanthe monticola, the bokmakierie, Telophorus zeylonus, characterized by its melodious call, as well as titbabblers, Parisoma subcaerulum, redeyed bulbuls, Pycnonotus nigricans and mousebirds, Colius spp. Other interesting birds found in the river courses are the Ruppell's parrot, Poicephalus rueppellii, and the rosyfaced lovebird, Agapornis roseicollis, two species which are endemics in the sense that 75 per cent of their world distribution occurs in Namibia.

Birds found at the water holes include Egyptian geese, Alopochen aegyptiacus, avocets, Recurvirostra avosetta, redknobbed coots, Fulica cristata, and Cape teals, Anas capensis.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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