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Desert Elephants of Namibia

Namibia's desert elephants are a source of great interest, and this page provides information and photos of the desert elephants from the Southern Kunene Region of Namibia, Africa.

Desert elephants in Huab River, Damaraland, Namibia

 

Although not a separate species, and not much different from other savannah elephants Loxodonta africana africana, Namibia's desert-dwelling elephants are special nonetheless.  They are of high national and international conservation priority, and have been designated as top priority for protection by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).  They live in the Kunene Region, encompassing 115,154 km2 of mostly sandy desert, rocky mountains and arid gravel plains in Namibia's northwest.

Desert elephants in the Ugab River, Damaraland, Namibia

 

They have adapted to their dry, semi-desert environment by having a smaller body mass with proportionally longer legs and seemingly larger feet than other elephants. Their physical attributes allow them to cross miles of sand dunes to reach water. They have even been filmed sliding down a dune face to drink at a pool in a desert oasis.


They survive by eating moisture-laden vegetation growing in ephemeral riverbeds and with their ability to go several days without drinking water. Sometimes they must travel long distances to reach a water source. By living in smaller than average family units of only two or three animals, they decrease pressure on food and water resources. Researchers have noted that they destroy fewer trees than elephants living in higher rainfall areas in other parts of Africa.

 

Lone elephant bull in Huab River, Damaraland, Namibia

 

 

There is only one other group of desert-dwelling elephants in the world. They live in Mali, North Africa, where they were forced into their desert habitat by human population expansion. These also belong to the species Loxodonta africana africana.
Another species of elephants, those in Asia Elephas maximus, along with another Loxodonta sub-species in Africa's wetter countries along the equator, called forest or sometimes pygmy elephants because of their small size Loxodonta cyclotis, also can be descibed as pachyderms, meaning “thick skinned”.

 

Older elephant bull showing dominance

 

 

Elephants are known for their long lifespans (similar to humans), intelligence, memory and a special family structure. After a gestation period of 22 months, a baby elephant requires mother's milk for about two years. They enter puberty around 10 to 12 years of age, when females can become pregnant, are considered adults by age 18, and can live into their 60s. The youngsters learn all they need to know from their family members: mothers, aunts, sisters and brothers. As males reach puberty, however, they soon leave their family herds and join other males to continue learning proper adult behavior from older and more dominant bulls. A younger one sometimes accompanies an older bull and is called an “askari”.

 

Desert elephant communication

 

 

Females usually remain in their family herds, which are led by a “matriarch”. Matriarchs are usually the largest and oldest female, the one with the richest store of knowledge about water, food resources, escape routes and hiding places in their range area.

When over-hunting in the 1900s disrupted elephant herds in the Kunene Region and reduced the population to remnants which survived in the sparsely populated and distant northwestern areas, some of the remaining elephants might have remembered their former ranges further south. Perhaps that is why they returned in 1995-6 to the Ugab River. Or maybe they were simply expanding their range after excellent rains which produced an abundance of lush vegetation. At first an intrepid bull ventured far south; he was named “Voortrekker”, meaning “first walker”. Later he brought breeding herds, and now the Ugab River area has become home to approximately 31 elephants.  This figure is actually less than when the elephants first returned to the area, this reduction being due, in the main, to conflict incidents.

 

Desert elephant in Namibia enjoying a mud bath

 

 

While elephants were absent from the southern reaches of the Kunene region, people forgot they had once roamed the area. People moving in from other places in Namibia were unhappy about sharing their water; and other resources with these giants that require lots of space, water and food. Many have become more accepting, as they learn about the potentials for deriving an income from the elephants' presence. But there is still a long way to go to develop and realize those potentials.

EHRA works with Desert Elephant Conservation, a family of researchers who concentrate on the herds of elephants in the northern Kunene Region.  They have an excellent web site with further information on the desert elephants.

 

Desert elephant in Namibia relaxing in the mud