The Succulent Karoo desert is located between the country of Namibia and South Africa. What the United Nations describes as the most “biodiverse arid desert on the planet” is home to more than 6,300 rare plant species, and countless exotic animals, most of which can only be found there.
According to reports, a combination of overgrazing from wildlife, plant poaching, and other human demands on the desert has left only 25% of the Karoo in a habitable, intact state. It’s for this reason alone that conservationists in Africa have made protecting the Succulent Karoo a main priority. However, not many officials in Africa take the conservationist effort seriously, as for the most part the Karoo is just a barren desert. However, this desert’s ecosystem is extremely fragile and valuable to all of Africa’s inhabitants.
Succulents are defined as plants that store water in their leaves, stems or both for long periods of time, hence why they’re most commonly found in dry, arid, desert environments. Cacti and aloe plants are the most common types of succulents, and the Karoo desert is full of them. In fact, the Succulent Karoo alone contains a third of the entire planet’s succulent species.
The 6,300 plant species that grow in the Karoo often have bright and colorful flowers stemming from them, which indicates to insects and small animals that they contain moisture and nutrients. Insects come and drink the water and eat the leaves, which in turn attracts insect-eating animals to the desert, such as moles, scorpions, tortoises, birds, and lizards, most of which have sub-species that are exclusive to the Karoo, much like a majority of the succulents. These beautiful plants also attract a plethora of tourists when they’re in bloom, however, tourists also means illegal poachers, and I don’t mean the kind that are hunting elephants.
“A growing illegal market for succulents is fueling poaching activities in the Karoo region. Scorpions, baboon spiders, and some lizard species also fall prey to poachers in the region. Overgrazing by farmed ostriches, sheep and cattle is also seriously damaging the desert landscape, especially during droughts. This environment is very easily damaged, and has a long recovery period. The desert has also been mined for uranium, diamonds and sand, leaving great scars in the landscape,”says Marienne De Villiers, an ecologist for the South African government’s conservation organization, CapeNature.
The desert is so vast and the inhabitants are so sparse and small that scientists find themselves having a difficult time locating and identifying species for protection. However, recently CapeNature researchers and conservationists have begun using drones to locate certain species that otherwise are out of sight.
According to the researchers, the drones they use are mounted with infrared sensors that are connected to a machine that is able to identify species from long distances based on shapes and motion. Scientists are able to use this information to learn about when certain species are typically out in the open and therefore more susceptible to poaching threats.
According to the Environmental Literacy Council, an international conservationist non-profit, only 3% of the Succulent Karoo Desert is protected under government legislation. This issue is CapeNature’s main focus, so much so that in 2002 they created something called the Biodiversity Stewardship Program. This program calls upon local landowners and farmers in South Africa to be recruited for their land as a space for wildlife to live and be protected. Paying landowners for portions of their vast properties is much cheaper than raising the funds to actually buy new land to be used as a wildlife safe haven.
“Over time, these projects have helped to build buffer areas and wildlife corridors throughout the Western Cape, helping to protect the Succulent Karoo and its rare species. I hope the Stewardship program will educate people about the value of the desert for years to come. There’s still so much that we don’t know about the Succulent Karoo, and there’s probably a wealth of species still out there waiting to be discovered,” says De Villiers.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.