|From Sand to Sea
by Adrian Warren, Producer
Real or Mirage?
In living history, the Etosha Pan has never been filled with water, although in years of good rainfall, several tributaries of the Kunene river, such as the Oshigambo and the Ekuma in northwest and the Omuramba Ovambo in the east, drain into it, causing partial flooding and attracting thousands of flamingoes and other wading birds. The water, though, can be as much as two times saltier than sea water is, and therefore generally unfit for animal consumption.
One of the harshest and most barren areas on Earth, Etosha seems to forbid life. However, the Pan and the surrounding sweetveld savannah plains are home to more than 114 mammal and some 340 bird species. This animal life is sustained only because of underground springs that form waterholes on the outskirts of the pan. These waterholes allow animals to fight off the dry and the heat as they migrate across Etosha, seeking refuge from temperatures that can reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Without a subterranean water table and the numerous places where it reaches the surface, little game would have been attracted to the region in the first place. There are indications, however, that the climate may be changing. 1995 was the 18th year of below average rainfall in Etosha. Large herbivores, as a result, have become more widely dispersed in search of grazing, and the predators alsoseem to be ignoring their previous range limits to widen their search for prey. Lion pride structure has become loose, with individuals traveling huge distances. In an effort to try to understand what is going on, research in DNA fingerprinting and radio tagging of individuals is being carried out.
A Tale of Two Seasons
But in the Etosha Pan, a life of ease is fleeting. In a few short months, the lake will have dried up and water and food will once again be scarce. The cycle will begin again and the flourishing inland sea will once again transform into an expanse of parched, cracked salt and sand.
For centuries, Etosha was utilized as grazing and hunting land by resident tribespeople, such as the Owambos, and the Hereos and nomadic bushman hunters/gathers. It was unknown to Europeans until 1851, when Swedish explorer Charles John Anderson and his companion Francis Galton, an English scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin, opened wagon tracks across the vast wilderness. In the years following, there were many travelers, some of whom had left the Transvaal, crossing the harsh interior of the Kalahari desert in search of new promised land in Damaraland. In 1876, an American trader, G. McKiernan, traveled northwards via Okoquea (present day Okaukuejo) and wrote in a letter about the abundant wildlife: "All the menageries in the world turned loose would not compare to the sight I saw that day." Etosha and the surrounding areas became known as a hunterıs paradise, and it was not until 1907 that Dr. F. von Lindequist, Governor of German South West Africa (as Namibia then was), expressed concern over the diminishing numbers of wild animals. He proclaimed a reserve of 99,526 square kilometers (61,843 miles) for the protection of indigenous plants and animals. There were no fences or physical boundaries, and the game was in no way restricted in its movements. Migration across the game boundaries was not interfered with; it only meant that the animals were no longer protected when and if they crossed the boundary. Trading and farming were not even prohibited in the reserve, although the wildlife was protected.
Today, Etosha National Park is still one of the largest national parks, although its size has been reduced to only 22,270 square kilometers (13,838 miles). The park is surrounded by a strong wire, sometimes electrified fence, which is intended to keep animals in and poachers out. In 1851, C.J. Anderson had described Namutoni, at the Eastern end of the Etosha Pan, as a needed and "most copious fountain" that the Owambo people used as a cattle post. In 1896, in response to repeated skirmishes between white settlers and the Owambo, a German military outpost was established in Namutoni, and a fort was built there three years later. In 1904, the fort was attacked and burned down by the Owambos. The fort's seven German defenders were forced to run for their lives, making their escape under cover of darkness. The fort was rebuilt later as a police and veterinary outpost for the control of rinderpest, which had spread from Bechuanaland (now Botswana).