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The Central Kalahari Game Reserve - A view from our expert author


Cheetah in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana by Papa Bravo, ShutterstockThe main predators in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve are lion, cheetah, leopard and spotted hyena, which generally occur in a low density, matching their prey species © Papa Bravo, Shutterstock

Covering about 52,800km², the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (or the CKGR, as it’s usually known) is one of the world’s largest game reserves. It dominates the centre of Botswana, the wider region that referred to here as simply the ‘Central Kalahari’. This is Africa at its most remote and esoteric: a vast sandsheet punctuated by a few huge open plains, occasional salt pans and the fossil remains of ancient riverbeds.

Unlike the other game areas in sub-Saharan Africa, the game of the Kalahari is at its most spectacular during and just after the rains.

The CKGR isn’t for everybody. The game is often sparse and can seem limited, with no elephants or buffalo; the distances are huge, along bush tracks of variable quality; and until 2009, the facilities were limited to a handful of campsites. So without a fully equipped vehicle (preferably two) and lots of bush experience, it was probably not the place for you. The converse is that if you’ve already experienced enough of Africa to love the feeling of space and the sheer freedom of real wilderness areas, then this reserve is completely magical; it’s the ultimate wilderness destination.

In a recent change of policy, however, the authorities have permitted the establishment of two small lodges within the reserve, thus opening it up to those who don’t have the experience, the time or the equipment to come here alone. As a middle ground, there are also a handful of mobile safaris operating in the area.

Fauna

Springbok are probably the most numerous of the large herbivores in the park today. That said, the game populations in the Central Kalahari seem to have been fluctuating fairly wildly, at least for the last century, and perhaps longer. In his book, A Comment on Kalahari Wildlife and the Khukhe Fence, Alec Campbell suggests that over this period human activities and interference have altered the balance of the wildlife populations in the Kalahari substantially, and led indirectly to population explosions and crashes.

The Central Kalahari’s population of blue wildebeest has, at times within the last century, swelled to enormous proportions. In his work A Comment on Kalahari Wildlife and the Khukhe Fence, Campbell describes them as peaking in the 1960s when ‘herds of 50 and 100 had so accumulated in the Matsheng and Okwa area that they stretched unbroken for many kilometres and numbered hundreds of thousands’.

Thane Riney, an ecologist there at the time, was familiar with the vast herds of the Serengeti yet still referred to these as ‘the largest herds of plains game left in Africa today’. Wildebeest populations were then estimated at up to 250,000 animals, but within a few years lack of water, grazing and the existence of veterinary cordon fences had conspired to wipe them out from much of the Central Kalahari. Today you’ll find small groups of wildebeest in the CKGR, but I’ve never seen them in large numbers.

If you’ve already experienced enough of Africa to love the feeling of space and the sheer freedom of real wilderness areas, then this reserve is completely magical.

Probably the area’s most common large antelope are gemsbok (also known as oryx), which can be seen in congregations of hundreds on the short grass plains during the rains, but usually occur in smaller groupings during the rest of the year. These magnificent antelope are supremely adapted for desert living. They can survive fluctuations of their body temperature up to 45°C (when 42°C would kill most mammals) because of a series of blood vessels, known as the carotid rete, located immediately below their brain. These effectively cool the blood before it reaches the animal’s brain – the organ most adversely affected by temperature variations.

The main predators here are lion, cheetah, leopard and spotted hyena, which generally occur in a low density, matching their prey species. The lion prides range over large territories and are bonded by loose associations; members spend most of their time apart from each other, living alone or in pairs, and meeting relatively infrequently. Individual lions will often hunt a variety of smaller prey, like bat-eared foxes and porcupines, as well as the larger antelope more commonly thought of as lion fodder.

Similarly the Central Kalahari’s leopard have a very catholic diet, ranging from mice and spring hares to ground squirrels and wildcats, plus steenbok, springbok and calves of the larger antelope.

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