Etosha, Namibia‘s ‘great white place’ and ‘lake of mothers tears’, is one of the world’s great nature reserves. This 22,000sq km expanse of savannah and desert is home to countless iconic animals, including the critically endangered African black rhinoceros.
Just now its landscape, gleaming white under the merciless tropical sun, resembles the surface of Mars, the sparse vegetation dusty greyish in the heat, an apocalyptic vision of our overheated planet’s surface when runaway climate change takes off in the decades to come.
It rains in Etosha between November and April, when Africa’s largest salt pan becomes a lake bigger than an Irish county. Moisture accumulated during the rainy season sustains the ecosystem through the six-month dry period. So it has been for millennia but, now, with global warming, the rains are failing. Even the water-holes, on which wild creatures depend, are drying up.
Solar-powered pumps draw water from underground to keep animals and birds, vital to Namibia’s eco-tourist industry, alive. Ironically, drought renders wild creatures visible; forced by thirst to compromise on safety, they converge on waterholes to drink.
Watching them do so this month, Ireland’s great starling murmurations came to mind, not because of the numbers approaching the waterholes, but the manner of their doing so. No starling, wheeling in the sky, wants to exit the multitude. And with good reason; sparrowhawks and peregrines will be waiting. Plunging into a flock, a raptor can’t easily target individuals in the fleeting mayhem, so it waits for lone flyers to emerge. The ones leading the descent to the trees will be fall-guys, drawing the predators’ fire and rendering the coast clear for others to follow.
Like the try-it-on-the-dog food-tasters of medieval potentates, these lightning-conductor starlings neutralise the threat from predators. And so it is at Etosha’s water-holes.
Jittery ostriches zebras and springboks must run the waterhole gauntlet, torn between the forces of thirst and fear.
Irish rats stay underground. One seen out during daylight is probably ill or starving; short of food and with nothing to lose, it has no choice but to throw caution to the winds. “Ours is but to do or die”. Do the weakest and thirstiest savannah dwellers also go first?
Giraffes appear, silhouetted on the horizon, kilometres away. Moving gingerly towards the hole, each one pauses for several minutes every 50m or so, surveying the surroundings anxiously; big cats or wild dogs may be waiting in ambush. Nor does hyper-vigilance cease once the pool is reached; drinking is the most dangerous part of the operation.
Ensuring the coast is clear, a giraffe spreads its front legs widely and lowers its long neck towards the water, an ungainly posture. Unable to see the surroundings while the head is down, it is now defenceless. The elusive black rhino waits until it is almost dark before approaching.
Gemsboks, those elegant desert antelopes with long curved-back horns depicted on the Namibian coat of arms, have another solution to the water-shortage challenge. Like camels, they can get by with little access to open water, deriving moisture from the vegetation they eat.
However it’s an ill wind that blows no one good. I watched a pride of lions gorge themselves on a hapless zebra which thirst, no doubt, had rendered an easy target.
Fear pervades this great wilderness. Nature here really is red in tooth and claw.