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Deserts & drylands

Deserts and dryland habitats are – as their name suggests – largely waterless, but they are able to support a great variety of life.

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

Only 10% of the world’s deserts are sandy; the rest come in many forms including 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 deserts.

How do plants and animals survive in the desert?

Desert species are highly adapted to be able to handle the harsh, punishing conditions of their habitat: Kalahari ground squirrels use their own tails as parasols; the water-storing trunks of baobabs and quiver trees enable them to survive extended periods of drought; outsized ears help fennec foxes and jackrabbits keep cool; and the bright-white coat of the Arabian oryx reflects the sun’s rays.

These regions are also home to human settlements and have been for millennia.

Is global warming causing deserts to expand?

Climate change poses a serious threat to desert and dryland ecosystems.

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 their fragile ecosystems have evolved during an extended period of climatic stability and are not equipped to handle sudden shifts.

Species living in desert environments need to be highly specialised to survive, meaning even slight fluctuations in temperature and rainfall can have a disproportionately serious impact on them.
The impacts of climate change on desert and dryland habitats can be exacerbated by human over-exploitation, such as poaching, overharvesting of firewood and overgrazing, which leads to the desertification of semi-arid regions.

Lone oryx. © Kertu / Adobe Stock

Lone oryx. © Kertu / Adobe Stock

Lone oryx.

How Fauna & Flora is protecting desert and dryland biodiversity

Fauna & Flora has a long association with desert wildlife, including the captive-breeding initiative that saved the Arabian oryx from extinction. This remarkable rescue began with the capture of three of the last remaining wild oryx in 1962 and culminated, 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.
Our work today in desert and dryland landscapes ranges from supporting communities to improve natural resource management to working with corporate partners to strategically reduce their impacts on the biodiversity in these areas.

Operation Oryx. © Fauna & Flora

Operation Oryx. © Fauna & Flora

Operation Oryx, 1962.

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