Etosha National Park

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
Etosha, ‘the great white place’, is enclosed within a National Park c.400 km north of Windhoek and 120 km south of the Angolan border. The primary feature within the park is the Etosha Pan, a saltpan some 4,760 km² in size, up to 129 km long and 72 km wide, covering almost one-quarter of the park. Numerous smaller salt and clay pans exist to the west and north of the main pan, some of which lie just outside the park boundaries. The park comprises an area of closed drainage on the great African plateau. Most of the year the pan lies dry, appearing barren and desolate, but during the wet season it is inundated with water from the Ekuma and Oshigambo rivers, which drain catchments in former Ovamboland and southern Angola. Inflow from the east through the Omuramba Ovambo may also be important in flooding Fischer’s Pan and the southern ancient river course on the pan. The extent of the flooding is dependent on the amount of rain that falls in the catchment area, and not on surface rainfall. In exceptionally rainy years the pan becomes a shallow lake a few centimetres deep.

Geologically the area comprises calcareous sand, gravel and limestone with dolomite outcrops in the west. Soils are shallow and alkaline. The temperature is one of extremes, ranging from below freezing on some winter nights to above 45°C during the day in midsummer. Pan surface temperatures can then reach 60°C. The vegetation is primarily arid savanna, shrub and thorn scrub in the west, tending towards tree-savanna and broadleaved woodland in the east. Acacia woodland is found throughout the region. Patches of mopane Colophospermum and Combretum woodland are also characteristic of the park, especially in the eastern broadleaved savanna belt.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Table 3 for key species. The park supports at least 340 bird species. The main pan is of particular importance as large numbers of both Phoenicopterus ruber and P. minor regularly breed here when rainfall exceeds 440 mm per year. Historically, up to 1.1 million flamingos have been recorded in years of exceptional rain. Etosha is one of only two regular breeding sites for these species in southern Africa, the other being Sua Pan in the Makgadikgadi Pans (BW005) in Botswana. Unfortunately, breeding success is very limited, and the pan cannot be considered to hold a viable breeding population. In recent years the pan has regularly held over 20,000 waterbirds during the wet season. Apart from flamingos, Pelecanus onocrotalus and Charadrius pallidus also breed here in large numbers in years of good rainfall. Rarities are also attracted at such times and Egretta vinaceigula and Aenigmatolimnas marginalis are unusual visitors. The pan and its surrounding grassveld are also good for Palearctic migrants, including important numbers of Glareola nordmanni and Charadrius asiaticus. Etosha also supports the only breeding population of Grus paradisea outside South Africa—a tiny population of about 60 birds, known to have declined in the last 10 years.

The park is particularly rich in raptors with 46 species recorded. It supports all vultures found in Namibia, including Gyps coprotheres, Torgos tracheliotus and the locally rare Neophron percnopterus. Scavengers such as Aquila rapax and Terathopius ecaudatus are particularly common, since they are unaffected by poisons here.

Non-bird biodiversity: Among mammals, threatened species include Acinonyx jubatus (VU), Loxodonta africana (EN), Diceros bicornis bicornis (CR) and Equus zebra hartmannae (EN), while Aepyceros melampus petersi is endemic and Madoqua kirkii is near-endemic to Namibia; efforts to reintroduce Lycaon pictus (EN) have failed thus far. Reptiles include Python sebae, P. anchietae, Psammobates oculiferus, Geochelone pardalis and Agama etoshae.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Originally established in 1907, Etosha Game Reserve covered 9,324,000 ha; it was gradually reduced to 2,314,000 ha in area between 1947 and 1953. In 1958, it was officially designated a National Park under Section 37 of the Nature Conservation Ordinance 31, and on the recommendation of the Commission of inquiry into South West Africa’s Affairs (Odendaal Commission), the size of the park was increased to include sections of the Skeleton Coast, enlarging the area to 9,952,600 ha. By 1970 the park’s borders had once again been de-proclaimed to its current size to provide land to Herero-speaking tribes; the size has been reduced by 72% since 1907.

Etosha faces several persistent management challenges. It is surrounded on its southern and western borders by commercial farmland; double electric boundary fences, primarily designed to keep Panthera leo and Loxodonta africana in the park and poachers and domestic animals out, have been erected. This has resulted in serious disturbance to the migratory movements of ungulates. In particular, wildebeest migration was blocked by the northern fence, with a resultant decline from 25,000 to 2,300 animals in the space of 25 years. Loxodonta africana, however, still migrate out of the park in the wet season and may then create problems in adjacent commercial and communal farming areas. A disease, feline immune deficiency virus (FIV), affects wild cat species, particularly Acinonyx jubatus. Fire control in the past permitted the transition of the vegetation from open savanna to woodland, which allowed a concomitant increase in Loxodonta africana numbers from 100 in 1955 to 1,500 at present. Drought periods between 1979–1996 have further complicated issues, as ungulates have been unable to migrate away from drought-stricken areas.

Recent research has shown that while flamingos occur in spectacular numbers, they rarely breed successfully (one in nine years) because the water rapidly evaporates, exposing chicks and fledglings to predators and eliminating food sources adjacent to the colony. The low breeding success in the last four decades has shown that the pan does not support a self-sustaining population. Scientific research to find solutions to management problems is conducted through the Etosha Ecological Institute, which is located at Okaukeujo.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Etosha National Park. Downloaded from on 07/07/2022.