Large enough to be classified as a saline desert in its own right, the Etosha Pan lies in the Owambo Basin, on the north-western edge of the Namibian Kalahari. Until three million years ago it formed part of a huge, shallow lake that was reduced to a complex of salt pans when the major river that fed it, the Kunene, changed course and began to flow to the Atlantic instead. If the lake existed today, it would be the third largest in the world.
Etosha is the largest of the pans, 4 760km² in extent, or about half the size of Lebanon. It is nowadays filled with water only when sufficient rain falls to the north in Angola to induce floods to flow southward along the ephemeral channels and rivers that form the Cuvelai drainage system. On such occasions flamingos from all over southern Africa as well as eastern white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) and chestnutbanded plovers (Charadrius pallidus) descend on Etosha to breed. The pan is one of only two sites in southern Africa where both greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) and lesser flamingos (P. minor) regularly breed. The other is the Sua Pan in Botswana.
Flamingos are a common sight on Fischer's Pan, which usually holds some water, but on rare occasions -- perhaps three summers in 20 -- close to a million of them congregate on the adjacent Etosha Pan after large floods. Etosha translates as Great White Place of Dry Water. The pan lies in the heart of a national park with a total area of 22 270km² that is ranked among the great parks of Africa. It supports no fewer than 114 species of mammal and 340 species of bird.
Much of the area is open country where wildlife is easy to see, especially in the dry season, when animals crowd around springs and waterholes. Dwarf shrubs grow on the fringes of the pan with grassland beyond. In the rest of the park, savannah and woodland are typical, with the mopane as the dominant tree.
On a sandy plain west of Okaukuejo, moringa trees (Moringa ovalifolia), found only on rocky hillsides elsewhere in Namibia, form a large stand known as the Haunted Forest.
Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), gemsbok (Oryx gazella) and blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) graze on the plains, while giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) and eland (Taurotragus oryx) browse in the woodlands.
Antelope that are endemic to Namibia, blackfaced impala (Aepyceros melampus petersi) and Damara dik-dik (Madoqua kirkii damarensis), inhabit denser woodlands in the east. Look for the latter particularly in thickets just south of Namutoni.
The wildlife includes both species of zebra indigenous to southern Africa, the mountain (Equus zebra hartmannae) and the plains or Burchell's (E. burchelli), and both species of rhinoceros, the black or hook-lipped (Diceros bicornis bicornis) and the white or squarelipped (Ceratotherium simum).
The number of elephant (Loxodonta africana) fluctuates between some 750 in the rainy season and over 2 000 in the dry season when large herds are drawn to the waterholes. A certain amount of migration takes place between Etosha and the Kalahari wetlands.
All of the big cats are present, with lion seen fairly often, cheetah occasionally and leopard almost never.
The park is the only place outside South Africa where the blue crane (Anthropoides paradiseus) is known to breed. It supports a small population of fewer than 100 birds.
Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are present in large numbers. The park is also rich in raptors with 46 species recorded. It supports vultures such as the African whitebacked (Gyps africanus) and lappetfaced (Torgos tracheliotus). The eagles include the Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), martial (Polemaetus bellicosus) and tawny (Aquila rapax).