The dangerous lands of the Skeleton Coast

Described as ‘the Gates of Hell’ by sailors, the Skeleton Coast is one of the most extreme environments in Africa. Here, the chilling Atlantic Ocean is met with the fierce heat of the Namib Desert, which encompasses 2 million hectares of dunes and gravel plains. The dunes ‘roar’ because of air trapped between the grains of sand. Whale and seal skeletons cover the coastline from the former whaling industry. Shipwrecks, due to the thick coastal fog, have left ship wreckage and human bones alongside the animal remains. Although this coast is haunted by death, many animals have learned to survive in the harsh habitat.


Although surrounded by the ocean, the animals and plants of the Skeleton Coast cannot drink its saltwater. Rainfall rarely exceeds 10 millimetres annually. This means that life has had to adapt to living on small amounts of water.

One of the key water sources for most life along the coastline are the dense ocean fogs, or cassimbo, caused by the upwelling of the cold Benguela current. These fogs engulf the land next to the ocean. The freshwater moisture in the air rests on plants leaves. Plants take in water through their leaves and roots.

Larger animals can survive by licking this moisture from plants, or rocks, as black-backed jackals do. Some smaller animals like arthropods, which include insects and crustaceans, have specially adapted bodies to collect this moisture. Darkling beetles like the Namib Desert beetle have bumpy backs which help moisture collect as droplets on them. These then roll from their backs into their mouths.

The national park beyond the coastline is divided by rivers. While smaller animals can live off moisture, the larger animals move between the coastline and the riverbeds. These include baboons, giraffes, lions, black rhinos and even elephants. When water is scarce or animals are close to the coast, they can get water from wells dug by baboons or elephants.


Very few trees are able to find enough water to survive in the desert. This means that there is little shade. Animals have to find ways to protect their bodies from the sun. Tok-tokkie beetles work together by climbing on top of one another, taking turns to provide shade for one another.

It is not only animals that live in the desert. Although most tribes have left the area, the Himba people have managed to survive. They protect themselves from the sun through applying a traditional ocher-and-butter mix to their skin.


The Himba people have a population of around 50,000. Despite this, they are nomadic pastoralists: they grow nothing and eat only meat due to the harsh environment.

Many smaller animals are dependent on winds which blow detritus (waste from dead animals and plants) from the interior. The Namaqua chameleon relies on the ocean fog, which attracts the beetles seeking water.

Larger animals need more food in order to survive. Plants that can survive the harsh environment, like succulents, provide some supplement. The population of 250,000 cape fur seals, and coastal birds, are able to hunt fish in the ocean. These populations then provide food for predators like lions.

Mites and ticks are able to survive on the blood of large animals like the rhino. These in turn can be eaten by birds like egrets, or oxpeckers which also drink the blood of the rhino.


Black rhinos have an adapted hooked lip which helps them to browse for leaves, stems and shrubs, as there is less abundant grass. Their thick skin helps to protect them from thorns and sharp grasses while they browse for food.

The rhinos are one of the most endangered animals in the world. The southern black rhinoceros, north-eastern black rhinoceros and western black rhinoceros are all officially extinct. There is suspected to be only one Chobe black rhinoceros left living in Botswana. The last male northern white rhino is under constant armed guard

Black rhinos have survived harsh conditions for millions of years. Now, because of poaching, they might soon die out. Trade of rhino horn is illegal. However, demand in China in particular has exploded since 1970. This is for its use in furniture, and traditional medicine. Some people believe horns can help with exorcisms and fertility. These cures, or curing any illness, has not been confirmed or even suggested by medical science.



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