Flora and fauna
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park really contains a spectrum of environments, flora and fauna. Its east side, especially the southeast, is dominated by salt pans and grasslands – very much the same as the rest of Sua and Ntwetwe further east. Its western border, the Boteti River, is lined by thick riverine forest; here the wildlife has more in common with that found beside the Chobe, the Linyanti or in the Okavango Delta. Between these two very different environments lies the body of the park.
The vegetation on the east side of the park is very similar pattern to that of the Makgadikgadi Pans. Its diversity increases westwards as the saline influence of the pan is left behind; from the bare surface of the pan itself, through rolling grassland and the vegetated dunes of Njuca Hills, into thicker acacia scrub, and eventually to the dense riverine woodland along the banks of the Boteti River. Along the eastern border there are areas of palm-tree woodland, where groves of vegetable ivory palms (Hyphaene petersiana
) grow among the tracts of tall grassland.
On raised ground between the salt pans, yellowish patches of prickly salt grass (Odyssea paucinervis
) flourish, contrasting with clumps of the dark succulent Chenopodiacea
species. Along the pan edges you may also find a cactus-like succulent, Hoodia lugardii
, which periodically produces striking maroon flowers. The open grasslands are studded with islands of trees and denser vegetation, with such species as the trumpet thorn (Catophractas alexandri
) and western rhigozum (Rhigozum brevispinosum
) flowering among the acacia scrub.
Beside the deep sand of the Boteti River, camelthorns (Acacia erioloba
), blackthorns (Acacia mellifera
) and silver clusterleaf (Termilalia sericea
) dominate the riverine forest, interspersed with a few other riverine giants such as sycamore figs (Ficus sycomorus
) and sausage trees (Kigelia Africana
). Meanwhile for most of the year the 'riverbed' itself consists of a sandy channel carpeted in grasses and punctuated by occasional muddy pools of water.
In the wet season, Makgadikgadi Pans National Park boasts good concentrations of grazers that rival those of Nxai Pan to the north, and an aerial view shows the area to be latticed with a dense network of game trails. From about June onwards, herds of Burchell's zebra and blue wildebeest start a westward movement towards the lush grazing of the Boteti region, accompanied by smaller numbers of gemsbok, eland and red hartebeest. (The latter tend to come slightly later, in years when the rains have been exceptionally good.) These herds gradually congregate along the waterfront until, by November, this area becomes jam-packed with game.
In the ecozone between grassland and woodland, browsers such as kudu, bushbuck and grey duiker find a permanent home, while troops of baboons and vervet monkeys forage beneath the trees, and small numbers of giraffe and elephant often occur. This area supports a small waterbuck population, resident pairs of bushbuck (locals say the same subspecies/race as the Chobe bushbuck) and there are even a few hippo who have taken up unlikely residence in the permanent pools.
In peak season, from September to November, the area around the Boteti can offer truly outstanding wildlife watching, and the air is filled with the hiccuping calls of the milling zebra herds. However, with the arrival of the rains in December/January, the herds disperse. Some head north towards Nxai Pan, others gather in the grazing grounds of the southeast, where their migration route beyond the park to the Central Kalahari is blocked by a veterinary cordon fence. At this time, zebra and gemsbok may often be seen out on the pans in search of the mineral salts that are lacking on the Kalahari grasslands.
A healthy population of large predators, protected in the park from persecution by ranchers, includes lion, cheetah, leopard, spotted and brown hyena. Lion can be common during peak migration, with prides knocking down more zebra than they can consume and (be warned) sometimes wandering inquisitively through the campsites. Cheetah are less common, but may turn up anywhere where there are springbok, while leopard are permanent residents of the denser bush along the Boteti. Spotted hyena, like lion, follow the dry season herds, while brown hyenas find life more productive (and less competitive) along the park's eastern side.
In the east of the park the two campsites at Njuca Hills offer a panoramic base from which to explore the wildlife of the pans and grasslands. Herds of springbok, well adapted to survive the arid and exposed conditions, are common around the pans, while steenbok – usually found in pairs – are also widespread. Nocturnal predators of the pan fringes include brown hyena, aardwolf, bat-eared fox and striped polecat, while black-backed jackal, African wildcat, honey badger and small spotted genet can occur anywhere in the park. Other small mammals include porcupine, aardvark, spring hare and scrub hare as well as a host of smaller rodents and insectivores (see General pans fauna).
In sandy areas, ground squirrels (here at the northern limit of their Kalahari range), forage by day in small colonies, holding up their tails as parasols against the fierce sun and dashing for their burrows at any hint of danger. These sociable rodents associate amicably with yellow mongooses, who share their burrow systems and help keep a look out for predators.The lions of Makgadikgadi
Makgadikgadi is an erratic and uncertain place for lions. With the first rains, huge herds of zebra and wildebeest move out onto the plains to graze on the succulent grasses and drop their young. In the dry months this pulse of life ebbs back to the Boteti River, 50km to the west, leaving the plains largely deserted by large ungulates. The lions have had to adapt to these huge fluctuations and the unpredictability.
For some the solution is simply tracking the herds back to the Boteti for the dry months, where they must dodge the human residents on the west side of the river. Others stay behind amidst the parched grasses, swirling dust devils and spring hares. This is not the place for huge ungainly prides; rather lionesses pair up and wander over large areas, often in excess of 1,000km2, in order to find sufficient food. Males typically spread their time between two or more of these small, efficient prides. They can maintain territories of almost double that, walking up to 50km a night to patrol their vast swathes of baked wasteland.
Water is unavailable for up to seven months a year for these lions, so they must gain all their moisture from their prey. Immediately after killing large prey such as gemsbok they snick open the belly and stomach, slurping up the juices before they soak away into the sand. However large prey is hard to find during the dry season, so they will hunt aardvarks and porcupines, and they increasingly look outside the eastern and western boundaries of the park for sustenance from herds of dopey, slow-moving livestock.
Perhaps the most bizarre report from this park is of some of the Boteti's larger crocodiles which, when the river drops drastically during the dry season, retreat into holes in the riverbank that they have dug for themselves. One such lair that I saw was a good 4–5m above the level of water even in May, and would have been completely high and dry by October.