Africa is blessed with a wide range of habitats and landscapes. From deserts and savannas, to forests and swamps. Within these habitats you will find the most diverse range of animal and plant species on earth.
Three hundred years ago the continent was an open rangeland with animals able to traverse vast areas and numerous habitats. With colonization came control. Reserves and game parks were established along geographic and vegetation zones, inhibiting the behaviour of many multi-habitat species.
The greatest wildlife areas
There are still some areas in Africa that echo the pristine wilderness of the past. The vast plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania, the Masai Mara in Kenya and the relatively unspoiled inland swamp of the Okavango Delta in Botswana remain (for the most part) untouched.
Sadly, most of Africa’s wilderness has felt the heavy hand of mankind. Even the renowned Kruger National Park in South Africa, regarded as one of the greatest wildlife areas in the world, is a man-managed eco-system. The park has evolved into a unique eco-system with animals, in turn, adapting to the change.
There are species, such as the leopard, that survive in a wide range of habitat types including forests, mountains, deserts, swamps and savanna plains. Individual differences in colouration, food and general behaviour do occur between these areas.
Desert leopards exemplify the above difference. They are be lighter in colour than those from forested areas, allowing for blending into the environment. Savanna dwellers will prey mostly on antelope whereas leopard occurring in mountainous areas will prey mostly on baboons and other primates.
What came first?
Many species, such as the red lechwe, are area and habitat specific. Red lechwe occur in specific habitats of the floodplain areas of Botswana and Zambia, and yet lechwe have been farmed in areas with limited water and no flooplain. This raises an interesting question: Did animal behaviour find the habitat or did the habitat form the behaviour?
From my experience observing other species in new habitats, I would argue that the answer is the latter. Animals are very adaptable and when moved to a new area they will adapt their behaviour to that area.
Of deserts and survival
Species living in desert areas have adapted to their environment by limiting water loss and relying on less water intake for their survival. Many of these desert species do not physically drink water but get their moisture from the food they eat.
If water is available desert-dwellers will drink, but for the most part they will get their moisture needs from wild melons and succulent plants. The faeces of a desert-adapted animal are very dry, urination is limited and sweating is controlled to prevent excess water loss.
If water is available desert-dwellers will drink, but for the most part they will get their moisture needs from wild melons and succulent plants.
The oryx, found in most desert areas, has a fine system of blood vessels in its nostril. When the oryx breathes in, the blood is cooled by the air passing over the vessels, allowing the body temperature to rise as high as the outside temperature and hereby preventing sweating.
Elephants in most parts of Africa can drink up to two hundred litres of water a day; when elephants feed they will break trees and branches to get at food. The desert elephants of Namibia drink less often; when these animals feed they do not break branches but delicately pick leaves of trees and bushes as the food source is not as plentiful as in other areas.
Leopard and lions are, habitat-wise, the most widespread predators. These animals show differing behavioural traits and colour patterning across their geographical range. Individuals from the desert areas have adapted to survive without drinking and get their liquids from their prey.