Dry, but not deserted

The word ‘desert’ conjures up an image of a barren, lifeless landscape, but appearances can be deceptive. Although deserts and so-called dryland habitats are indeed largely waterless and parched, they are able to support a great variety of life.

Deserts are found on every single continent on the planet. They range from the subtropical deserts of the Sahara and the Kalahari, to cold winter deserts like the Gobi in Central Asia and cool coastal deserts such as the Namib in southern Africa and Atacama of northern Chile.

You might imagine deserts to be endless stretches of flat sand and rippling dunes, but only 10% of the world’s deserts are sandy, and the rest come in many guises: salt flats such as Great Salt Lake in the USA and Etosha pan in Namibia; areas covered in vegetation such as brush and dry grasses; expanses of ice; and the pebbly, rocky, cobbled terrain known as desert pavement.

Since these areas are defined by their relative lack of rainfall and short growing seasons, places such as the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica also qualify as desert.

Unsurprisingly, desert species are highly adapted and able to handle the harsh, punishing conditions of their home: Kalahari ground squirrels use their own tails as parasols; the bulbous water-storing trunks of comifora and quiver trees enable them to survive extended periods of drought between occasional downpours; outsized ears help fennec foxes, jerboas and jack rabbits keep cool; the bright-white coat of the Arabian oryx reflects the sun’s rays. These inhospitable regions are also home to human settlements, and have been for millennia. Roughly 40% of the world’s population lives in dryland regions, including some of the poorest people on the planet, who rely on trade and subsistence agriculture to survive.

Where we work:
Kenya

Deserts receive less than 25 centimetres of rain each year.

Two billion

people are estimated to live in dryland areas.

20%

of the Earth’s land surface is covered in desert.

Threats to desert environments

Climate change and human exploitation pose the most serious threats to desert and dryland ecosystems.

Because species living in desert environments need to be so highly specialised to survive, even slight fluctuations in temperature and rainfall can have a disproportionately serious impact on them.

Climate change is increasing the incidence of drought, drying up water holes and causing more frequent wildfires, which destroy slow-growing trees and shrubs and promote the growth of grasses. Even true deserts are adversely affected by the less predictable rainfall patterns and overheating, because these fragile ecosystems have evolved during an extended period of climatic stability and are not equipped to handle sudden shifts.

Many dryland regions are populated by humans who rely on the hard, nutrient-poor soil to grow crops and sustain livestock. Such practices have been taking place for centuries, and are reasonably self-sustaining, but some resources are increasingly being overexploited. Impoverished communities are driven to overharvesting of firewood and overgrazing, which leads to the desertification of semi-arid regions. Irrigation to allow crop production in semi-desert areas increases salt levels and leads to long-term reduction in soil fertility.

Poaching, logging, grazing and fires in dryland habitats take a particularly heavy toll on mammals, which often play a crucial role within their ecosystems by enriching the soil (via burrowing) and spreading vegetation (via seed dispersal).

Commercial agriculture and ranching, mining, oil and gas exploration and production, military manoeuvres and insensitive recreational use destroy habitats that have remained undisturbed for thousands of years.

How are we helping to protect desert and dryland biodiversity?

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has a long and proud association with desert wildlife, including the classic captive-breeding initiative that saved the Arabian oryx from extinction. This remarkable rescue act began with the capture of three of the last remaining wild oryx in 1962 and culminated, some two decades later, in the reintroduction of the species into the Oman desert.

This was one of the most remarkable conservation success stories of the 20th century, and the first time that an animal declared officially extinct in the wild was successfully reintroduced into its original habitat.

More recent examples of our work in desert and dryland landscapes include:

  • Working with marginalised pastoralist communities in northern Kenya to improve natural resource management and develop a wildlife conservancy model that benefits biodiversity and local livelihoods
  • Conducting a landscape-level assessment of biodiversity and land use in the spectacular Central Namib Desert to guide future land use policy against a backdrop of mining and other development pressures that could have a detrimental impact on the integrity of the landscape and affect tourism revenue
  • Working with the mining sector in Namibia to develop net gain approaches to biodiversity conservation
  • Developing restoration ecology pilot studies with De Beers in the Sperregebiet of Namibia’s diamond fields
  • Designing a biodiversity offsets strategy for sustainable land management and mining with the UNDP in Mongolia’s South Gobi and western provinces (Aimags)
  • Designing sustainable landscape level approaches in the dry altiplano of Peru with Anglo American’s Quellaveco copper project