Learn about the Kalahari forest and you can help save it

Amidst the Kalahari red sands one finds a remarkable forest, the Kathu Forest.  Here, a total of 4,000 hectares of indigenous trees, including the protected Camel Thorn (Acacia erioloba) line the arid landscape, giving it a world-renowned status as one of only two forests found in extremely arid areas.  Stories about the Kalahari forest date back to many many years ago.  In archaeological and heritage terms, the forest is a gem.  Archaeological artefacts and carved utensils dating back a staggering 800,000 years were found in and around the forest.  Elephant teeth belonging to the gigantic elephant, Elephus recki, indicate that these animals roamed here 3,5 to 1 million years ago.  And with Kathu’s establishment in the late 70s, this midge of a town whose name literally means “town under the forest” brought the forest even greater recognition and stories about the forest, became all the more popular… However, due to development pressure, the forest is at risk of losing its powerful role in the Kalahari, but learning about this forest’s importance, is how you can help save it.

The Camel Thorn – the backbone of the Kalahari

The Camel Thorn is unique.  Standing firm in the sand, it can survive and even flourish in an arid climate where rainfall is less than 400 mm per year.  The Camel Thorn plays a critical ecological role; no wonder it is in many ways the backbone of the Kalahari.  Some of its valuable resources include shade from the Kalahari’s excessive heat and food (foliage during the summer and highly nutritious pods during the winter).  It is a habitat of note, providing nesting sites for birds and mammals, within its myriads of branches and under its full canopies.  The bird species of the Kalahari benefit tremendously from the Camel Thorn tree tops.  This forest in the middle of a harsh environment makes the Northern Cape a birding hub.  A number of raptors, include the impressive Martial Eagle, call the Kathu Forest home.  But it is the Sociable Weaver that is the most familiar sight associated with the Camel Thorn tree.  Known for their generosity, these weavers share their large compound-like nests unselfishly with other birds; even some animals come on board to stay a while.  Bearing a critical ecological role, the Camel Thorn is a protected tree species in terms of South Africa’s National Forest Act.  However, the onslaught on the tree is great, and as a result it remains listed as ‘Endangered’ in terms of IUCN listings. Yet it is not only the biodiversity richness of the forests that makes it such a powerful attraction – its century old service to man is equally impressive.  Use of the tree’s resources includes the use of pods for medicinal use and as an alternative for coffee beans by traditional communities.  On a more cultural note, the Camel Thorn roots were traditionally used for the carving of musical instruments including flutes.

Fighting for survival

The Kathu Forest has served man and biodiversity faithfully for centuries, but today, man’s activities are threatening the future survival of the forest.  Although the forest has an official “National Heritage Site” status, providing some protection and security, there are many direct and indirect impacts threatening the forest:

Ancient waters below the Kalahari sands is one of the sole reasons for the flourishing forest.  But Kathu, the town under the trees, is one of the fastest developing towns in the Northern Cape.  Kathu is the iron mining capital of South Africa, and is now also booming as a residential and commercial Northern Cape hub.  Kumba’s Sishen iron ore mine ranks among the world’s five largest iron ore mines.  But this also means massive environmental impacts, water use and pollution.  The groundwater table is lowering drastically due to excessive groundwater abstraction throughout the area, making it increasingly difficult for the trees of the Kathu Forest to absorb water – the only sustaining factor of the forest.  The Kathu Forest will hardly escape these impacts.  What can be done? Learn about the ecological, archaeological, heritage and cultural importance of the forest in the Kalahari.  Information sharing creating a greater awareness, can save the forest by offering greater protection for this age-old treasure.


Photo credits: some rights reserved by Kate.Donaldson and Mark Abel via flickr

Sources: Anderson, T. (2009) The ‘forest’ in the Kalahari;  SA Forestry: Protecting a rare woodland in Kathu (2011).


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