Botswana History Pages, by Neil Parsons

12:    Science

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Notes and Comments

Provisional version by Neil Parsons April 1999

Scientific research in Botswana has characteristically been concerned with natural history (notably biology) and features of economic value (notably geology), as well as with environmental questions. For the latter also see Page 7: Geography.

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The Kalahari, i.e. the sandveld west of the hardveld and south of the ancient lake beds, has often been called 'thirstland' to distinguish it from true desert. Even in its south-western corner, where there are some bare sand dunes, the vegetation is more characteristic of dry steppe than desert.

The general vegetation of the country is savanna (grassland) with yellow or light brown grass cover (turning green after rains) and woody plants. The savanna ranges from Acacia shrub savanna in the south-west through acacia thorn bush and tree savanna 'parkland' into denser woodland and eventually forest as one moves north and east.

Tree savanna on rocky hills of the eastern hardveld merges northwards into Mopane (African ironwood) woodland. Mopane woodland covers much of the northern and eastern third of the country, with the exception of the open grasslands immediately surrounding the Okavango delta and Makgadikgadi pans.

Plant life in the acacia shrub savanna includes tsamma melons, an invaluable source of liquid for humans and animals in the thirstland. Typical woody plants in bush savanna are mongana (blackthorn acacia), mhahu (Acacia fleckii), setshi (candlepod acacia), moselesele (Kalahari christmas-tree) and morukuru (tamboti); while mogononono (silver terminalia) and moretlwa (wildraisin bush) are also found in acacia tree savanna. Cacti, aloes and prickly pears (motoroko), and a few species of evergreen tree are found on rocky hills.

Mopane woodland includes, besides mopane and acacia, the spectacular mowana or baobab ('upside-down tree') which may live up to four thousand years, and morula (wild plum).

Isolated stands of palm trees (mokolane) grow on aquatic grassland in the north, while tall trees such as mzungula (sausage tree), mokotshong (African ebony) and varieties of acacia grow along river banks. The dry deciduous forest of the extreme north-east consists of mukwa (bloodwood) and mukusi (Zimbabwean teak), which are commercially exploited for timber.

See Veld Products Research.

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Animal life is extremely varied in a thirstland environment. About 150 species of mammal are found in Botswana. These range from 30 species of bats and 27 of rodents to over 30 species of large mammal. Many large and small antelope, and scavengers such as jackals and hyaenas, can be found across the savanna, though rarely near centres of population or main roads.

Very large mammals such as giraffe, elephant, rhino, buffalo and lion are generally confined to the secure wild life areas, including parks and reserves, which cover about a fifth of the country; hippo and crocodile being found in the rivers and marshes of the north.

Botswana suffers less poaching than countries to the north, and there are active wildlife conservation groups. See Kalahari Conservation Society and others on Page 14: Tourism.

Bird life is prolific, with more than 460 species including ostrich and bustard on the plains, cormorant and herons in aquatic areas, vulture and eagle or kite near hills, and woodland species such as goshawk and warbler. Small grassland species have spread to agricultural areas carved out of the woodlands, notably the quelea finch which flocks in hundreds of thousands and attacks grain fields.

Botswana has a great variety of reptiles and amphibians, of which over 200 species have been described in detail.

The principal fish, in the rivers of the north, are tilapia (African bream), catfish and the tiger fish famous for its ferocious resistance to being caught on line.

Up to 80,000 insect species have been scientifically named and described in southern Africa, but this may only constitute five per cent of the total. A start in describing new Botswana species has been made on beetles and grasshoppers, but moths and butterflies, flies and mosquitoes, wasps and ants remain among the least studied.

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Geological exploration has been limited by the depth and extent of Kalahari sand covering the surface geology.

The rock groups underlying most of the sandveld are therefore least known, but appear to be the youngest-belonging to the Karoo supergroup formed 135-290 million years ago. Elsewhere Precambrian rock formations redominate.

The surface geology of the eastern hardveld, exposed in its hill ranges, largely consists of Basement complex rocks (more than 2500 million years old) intruding from the Transvaal and southern Zimbabwe.

This complex is known to extend into younger rock formations (1200- 2500 million years old) in the extreme southern sandveld; while rocks of the Ghanzi and Damara groups (570-1200 million years old) extend across the north-west corner of the country into neighbouring northern Namibia.

See the government's Department of Geological Survey web-site, including Publications with links to abstracts, including Annotated Bibliography and Index of the Geology of Botswana, geological maps, and publications of the Botswana Geoscientists Association.

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See Page 13: Society

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See Botswana Technology Centre, Rural Industries Promotion, and CORDE (Co-operation for Research, Education and Development).

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See UB research projects at the Harry Openheimer Research Centre.

International cooperation in scientific researched is evidenced by the Network for Analytical Bio-Assay Servicesin Africa (NABSA) within the Chemistry Department at the University of Botswana.

Scientific American comes up with an intriguing item from its July 1896 issue on the great rinderpest cattle epidemic in Botswana in 1896.

For agriculture see Economy Page and Ministry of Agriculture/ Agricultural Research, and SACCAR.

For scientific research the Botswana Society does not yet have a web-site, but a list of its publications may be found at Botswana Society publications list on this iste and the Kalahari Conservation Society certainly does have a web site.


(12a) R.D.Auerbach, The Amphibians and Reptiles of Botswana (Gaborone: Mokwepa Consultants, 1987) ISBN 99912-0-113-0

(12b) Botswana Notes and Records (Published by the Botswana Society, P.O.Box 71, Gaborone). Annual journal. [Index 1969-89 available] ISSN 0525-50590

(12c) Kenneth Newman, Newman's Birds of Botswana (Johannesburg: Southern Books, 1989) ISBN 1 86812 194 1

(12d) Mark & Delia Owens, Cry of the Kalahari (London: William Collins, 1985 & Fontana, 1986). ISBN 0 00 637030 6 paperback

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons

The Botswana History Pages by Neil Parsons may be freely reproduced, in print or electronically, on condition
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Last updated 19 August 1999