Resolving the relative contributions of top-down versus bottom-up drivers of vegetation dynamics is a major challenge in drylands. In the coming decades, growing livestock populations and shifts in water availability will simultaneously impact many arid systems, but a lack of empirical data on plant responses to these pressures limits understanding of how plants will respond. Here, we combine ground and drone observations from an herbivore exclosure experiment to identify ungulate visitation patterns and their impacts on the cover and melon production of !nara ( Acanthosicyos horridus ), a large, long-lived desert plant in the hyper-arid Namib Desert. !Nara are of key ecological, social, and economic importance to Namib ecosystems and to the local Topnaar people. At our study site, we find that among native and domestic herbivores, free-ranging donkeys have the largest impact on !nara cover and melon production. !Nara cover was negatively affected by herbivores close to the desert-ephemeral river ecotone during a dry period, whereas !nara cover increased on all plants across the landscape during a wetter period, regardless of herbivore access. !Nara near the river channel and those protected from herbivores had more mature melons, particularly during the wetter period. At this site, the potential for conflict between Topnaar !nara melon harvesting and pastoral practices varies with a plant’s distance from the river and prevailing abiotic conditions. This work advances monitoring approaches and adds empirical support to the understanding that top-down and bottom-up regulation of plant dynamics varies with spatiotemporal context, even within landscapes. Supplementary Information The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s00442-022-05177-w.