Namibia's desert elephants are a source of great interest and this page aims to provide information and photos of the desert elephants from the Southern Kunene Region of Namibia, Africa.
Although not a separate species, and not much different from other savannah elephants Loxodonata 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 115,154km2 of mostly sandy desert, rocky mountains and arid gravel plains in Namibia's northwest.
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.
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.
Elephants are known for their long lifespans (similar to humans), intelligence, memory and 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”.
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 55 elephants.
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 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.