The Living Edens-Etosha:From Sand to Sea
Sand to Sea Image Map
From Sand to Sea
by Adrian Warren, Producer

"Place of Mirages" Mirage effect on Animals in the distance
The searing heat reflects off the white surface in a shimmering mirage, through which the ghostly forms of animals can be seen almost floating in space. Etosha is a place of extremes, either a parched white wilderness or a lush green land of plenty. It is a wildlife preserve without peer, one of the world's last Edens and a crucial sanctuary for many of Africa's diminishing animal species, including the black rhino, roan antelope and black-faced impala. Its central feature is the 3,811 mile (6,133 square kilometer) Pan, once an inland sea.

Real or Mirage?
The Pan gradually dried up through evaporation 2 to 10 million years ago when climatic changes and topographic movements caused the Kunene river to change its course, and to flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Now, the Etosha Pan is a stark, seemingly endless depression of pale greenish-white clay, silt and mineral salts, all baking under the fierce African sun.

Flooding attracts wading birds like the FlamingoesIn 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.

Elephant watering hole
Wildlife Haven
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 alsoLion has to widen the search for preyseem 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
The year in Etosha can be divided into two distinct seasons: wet and dry, each with an entirely different character. Summer comes early, with temperatures rising noticeably after the advent of spring, in September. The mopane trees are bare of leaves, offering no shade from the blinding heat; the natural waterholes have shrunk to become brackish, tepid puddles. Occasional clouds soar across the sky only to dissolve and disappear again. During the last couple of months of the dry season, the animals of Etosha become tense and edgy. They have waited long enough.

Etosha's rainy seasonOctober brings hope, with clouds building and perhaps a few showers. The rainy season, in a good year, begins in November and continues through March and even into April. The pale, parched landscape is transformed under dramatic skyscapes, becoming lush, green and floral. Most animals bear their young in January and February, presenting a banqueting bonanza for predators, which quickly become satiated. Birds flock to Etosha from far away places -- flamingoes sometimes number in the millions, decorating the partially flooded Pan with their delicate pink hues. The massive herds of game disperse, no longer restricted to a few watering holes. Now, there is plenty of water and plenty to eat. Many migrate to the wetter western areas, where they can utilize grazing lands inaccessible at other times of the year. Most predators follow in the footsteps of their prey until the grasslands around Halali, which throbbed with life in the winter months, become deserted. Many elephants leave the Park at this time through breaks in the northern and western fences in migrations that have stood the test of time. Etosha's three 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).

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