The Desert-Adapted Elephants of Namibia's Kunene Region


Namibia is home to one of two known groups of desert adapted elephants in the world, with the other group being found in Mali. As mentioned in a previous post, there are several desert dwelling large mammals in Namibia’s north-western Kunene region. Read on to find out more about Damaraland’s desert elephants.

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A family of elephants traverse the harsh terrain together.
(Photo by Michael Poliza)

How do they survive?

These elephants are very similar to the African bush elephant, but are a bit smaller with larger feet and longer legs than their savannah dwelling cousins.

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A lone elephant surveys her arid surroundings.
(Photo by Norbert Schuster)

They, like humans, have a very long lifespan and structured family hierarchies with the family learning how to live in the arid region together from one another.

Eventually when the young males reach puberty they will split off from their familial herd and join up with other maturing bulls with whom they will grow older. After a time these bulls will find a mate and start their own herd.

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A young bull makes his presence known
(Photo by Norbert Schuster)

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A young bull under the tutelage of an elder bull is sometimes called an “askari”.
(Photo via the Cardboard Box)

These adapted elephants travel in smaller groups than your typical African elephants so that there is less pressure on the group to find the amount of food a large herd would need. They are also able to go several days without drinking any water, which together with their ability to walk long distances, helps them get from one oasis to the next.

Check out this video below for some interesting facts on how these large mammals survive in the unforgiving arid landscape!

Surviving in the deser takes practice.
(Video courtesy of Lynda Gregory, commentary by Russell Vinjevold)

Tracking the elephants

Desert elephants are notoriously difficult to spot as they roll around in the desert dust any chance they get, leaving them the colour of the sand found in their natural environment.

They are also very shy and have poor eyesight, but have excellent hearing and a terrific sense of smell. Thus they frighten easily and extreme patience and silence are required if you do not wish to disturb them.

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Desert elephants, blink and you may miss them!
(Photo by Norbert Schuster)

Like the desert rhinos these massive beasts traverse huge distances on a daily basis, covering up to 70km a day in search of water and food in the sparse and stark landscapes they have made their homes. This makes these gentle giants even harder to track since they roam in area that is over 115,154km2.

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A young elephant reaching high for some delicious greenery.
Most sightings of these elephants happen close to food and water sources.

(Photo by Norbert Schuster)

If you want to track these magnificent beasts you can do so while staying at the Palmwag Rhino Camp that we spoke about last week in our post on desert rhinos. Or ask a specialist operator like Terra Nova to help you organise such an adventure.

Conservation efforts- Get involved!

There were once almost 3000 desert elephants in the Kunene region, but rampant poaching and hunting in the 1980’s casued these numbers to plumet and the gentle giants were on the brink of extinction until just recently.

But through the concerted efforts of the Namibian government and private groups like the Elephant Human Relations Aid these desert animals are slowly growing in numbers each year. Presently the free-roaming population of desert elephants in the Kunene region is sitting around 600.

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Two elephants share a cuddle at a watering hole.
(Photo via EHRA)

EHRA has been running a volunteer project for over eight years now and it has been a huge success. If you read the first hand testimonials of volunteers who have been through the program and look at the tangible effects the organisation has had on the conservation of the Kunene’s elephants, it is clear that EHRA is doing good work for one of Namibia’s threatened species.

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Volunteers at EHRA.
(Photo via EHRA)

If you do not have the time to take part in one of the many volunteer programs associated with conserving the desert elephants but still want to get involved, then you always have the option of donating money to EHRA who will dedicate your pledges to protecting Damaraland’s rare natural treasures.

We can all help

As long as organisations like EHRA exist, and as long as people in Namibia and from around the world remain committed to protecting these beautiful animals they will continue to fight back from the brink of extinction.

Their intelligence and majesty should be preserved for future generations and we can all take part in ensuring this can happen!

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A herd of elephants head out in search of water and food.
(Photo by Anette Mossbacher)

 

More on this topic

Read about the desert adapted rhinos of Namibia

Download our adventure travel planning guide

Find out about Damaraland & Kunene region

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