Going, going… Gone… EWT working to reverse habitat loss in South Africa’s drylands

By Zanne Brink, Drylands Conservation Programme Manager


“The eye of the beholder” has always been an interesting emotional sense that has dictated a person’s view or outlook on the Dry Lands of South Africa, and further afield.  Those individuals drawn to vast open spaces with its unique endemic biodiversity and specialist species, versus those individuals who dread the “nothingness”.

For the most part, “arid”, or “dry” areas are characterised by limited natural water resources and, to the layman, large open areas with plants growing relatively low to the ground, and very little cellphone reception. These arid areas receive on average between 50 to 300 mm of rain per annum, making the arid regions very sensitive to climate variability with big impacts on endemic plants and animals adapted to this environment. Survival is dependant on evading drought or harsh periods through migration or endurance in the form of soil, water and vegetation management.  No matter how you look at it, the arid areas are exposed to extreme weather and climatic occurrences, such as droughts and heatwaves. This results in these landscapes being vulnerable to rapid and devastating environmental change and land degradation.

The vast open landscapes of southern Namibia, the Western and the Northern Cape Provinces of South Africa are home to three significant arid biomes: the Namib Desert, Nama Karoo, and the Succulent Karoo. Despite the harsh conditions experienced in these biomes, it is a fact that not only species, but biodiversity, and dare I say communities living in these biomes, are highly adapted and diverse.

In arid environments, mobility is the most important adaptation to extreme conditions. Animals and people can move from one area to another when plants do not spread fast enough. Increasing temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, and more frequent extreme weather events are altering ecosystems and placing additional stress on already vulnerable ecosystems and communities. Temperatures in southern Africa are expected to rise at a rate 1.5 to 2 times that of the rest of the world, exacerbating the possibility of biodiversity loss and climate change challenges for communities.  Arid areas are also known as the most sparsely populated areas of South Africa, and in recent years these communities have been shrinking due to socio-economic drivers.

Ongoing research allows us to understand these changes brought on by both short-term droughts and climate-induced shifts. This is very important, as natural and social responses to an ever-increasing changing environment due to increased frequencies in drought occurrences is vital.  South Africa’s meat and wool ‘breadbasket’ depends on changes implemented at a farm level and through legislation, to include a different style of farming to adapt to less water and increased temperatures over extended periods.

But, it must also be understood that arid regions have a slow response rate, with long-term monitoring over several years needed to understand impacts on fauna, flora, avians and invertebrates.  Even with stringent monitoring, it does not provide answers to feed into the need for livelihood protection for communities and biodiversity.  With growing economic needs, the search for renewable energies have started focussing on areas seen as low productivity areas, and slowly started desertification through development-related damage in a sensitive landscape.



Traditionally, small livestock farming was the most widespread economic opportunity in the arid areas. However, rampant overgrazing in some areas has caused severe land degradation, leading to a compromise in the ecological resilience of the areas. Poor rural communities in these areas have a particularly high dependency on well-functioning ecosystems, and currently, their resilience to climate change impacts is very low. A recent surge in renewable energy production has fuelled development across much of the landscape, which, in most cases, has left a shameful legacy of environmental degradation in the form of vegetation clearing, water abstraction and pollution, soil compaction and road development, all in the name of growth.

There is an urgent need to manage the arid regions of South Africa more effectively, to benefit both the landscape and people living off it. This includes injecting much-needed support for ecologically based adaptation (EbA), sustainable land management (SLM) and climate-smart agricultural practices, while tackling the negative impacts of land degradation.

The EWT Drylands Conservation Programme is working with landowners to champion the conservation of this spectacular landscape. We collaborate with all stakeholders to promote alternative economies and sustainable agriculture over unsustainable developments, such as hydraulic fracturing and uranium mining.  We focus on enhancing habitat protection and improvement, and driving innovative research, to better understand the unique species in the Karoo. This has allowed us to “rediscover” lost species such as De Winton’s Golden Mole (Cryptochloris wintoni).

Through our work, it allows us to collaborate with the communities within the landscape and to undertake activities that achieve specific conservation goals in each of these. By providing guidance in Sustainable Land Management (SLM), the EWT ensures that communities in landscapes benefit along with the ecosystems and wildlife that share these spaces through the responsible use of the available natural resources.  The Karoo Forever website was developed for the Drylands of South Africa to provide a knowledge-sharing platform with downloadable resources focused on sustainable land management (Welcome to Karoo Forever).

It is not all doom and gloom, but a realistic look at our beloved fragile arid environments is crucial to allow for a united focus on how to balance nature and development.  As financial constraints impede the application and implementation of ecological practices across this arid landscape, industry and conservation along with all communities and stakeholders need to find common ground to benefit man and environment.

The need, and the potential to do things better, must be emphasised.  This can only be done through our own actions and allowing locally led research to show the way to sustainability, allowing nature to benefit, and does not limit people’s wellbeing.  We, as a community, must make climate change and associated concerns a part of our day to day thinking and planning to build resilience in livelihoods and economies, to reduce our vulnerabilities, and the associated conflict.

Give our arid regions a chance and break the cycle of nature loss. We do have huge potential to enable nature and people to thrive together in a changing climate.