Desert elephants find friends in Namibia’s drylands
Erongo Region, Namibia
Think of African elephants and you might imagine them roaming open grasslands or settling in forests. But in northwest Namibia, amid an arid landscape of rocky mountains, sand and gravel plains, herds of elephants have adapted to life in the desert.
They are one of only two populations of desert-adapted elephants in the world and to survive in this harsh environment they have evolved some unique traits. Their wider feet allow them to move more easily over soft sandy terrain. Their feet also serve as a useful tool, along with their trunks, for finding water deep under the ground. They can go several days without drinking and have been observed to store water in a pharyngeal pouch in their throat, which they retrieve, when needed, with their proboscis.
But their most important adaptation is their memory, according to Dr Malan Lindeque, a Namibian zoologist and expert in elephant population ecology.
“They have excellent group memory – presumably held mainly by adults – and knowledge of widely dispersed water sources, which allow these elephants to move over very large areas, the largest recorded home ranges for elephants. anywhere,” Lindeque told CNN. “This allows them to search for favorable locations with enough plant material.”c
How Namibia’s elephants adapted to life in the desert
– Source: CNN
He added that while other elephants will search for food and water within a radius of 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), desert elephants can move 100 to 150 kilometers (62 to 93 miles) per day between water points, “often in a straight line, demonstrating their knowledge of the location of these sites.
According to Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA), a conservation organization in Namibia, around 62 desert-dwelling elephants live in the dry riverbeds of the southern Kunene and northern Erongo regions.
This is only a fraction of the 2,500 to 3,500 who lived in the Namib region in the 18th century. Hunting, poaching, population growth and political conflict have all contributed to their decline. Between 1970 and 1980 desert elephants completely disappeared from the Ugab River region, but in the late 1990s they started to return and today several herds roam freely in these areas.
But in this difficult environment, their survival is uncertain. A shortage of food and water means they regularly come into conflict with another species – humans.
Conflicts between elephants and humans are a problem across Africa and can lead to deaths on both sides, as well as elephants being driven from certain areas. In Namibia, elephants regularly venture into villages in search of food and water, where they can damage community water reservoirs and devastate farmers’ subsistence crops. This can cause significant tensions between them and economically vulnerable communities.
In 2009, EHRA set up the People and Elephants Amicably Co-Existing (PEACE) project, whose work includes monitoring elephant movements, ensuring that communities and elephants have separate watering holes and protection of village solar panels from potential damage from elephants.
He also works to educate people about the value of the world’s largest land mammal. “Our generation, in 2018, they don’t know the elephant. But today, EHRA teaches everyone about elephant behavior,” PEACE coordinator Herman Kasaona explained.
Kasaona has lived her whole life in the northwest of Namibia, where her father taught her to respect and track wildlife. In turn, he teaches the next generation of “elephant herders”, including Taiwin Garoeb, who admits he was afraid of animals.
“I (would) like to run away, but when I started running Project PEACE, I learned that elephants are very unique,” he said. “There is a way to change yourself so that when you see elephants you don’t have to run anymore.”
Occasionally, elephants venture into the community, usually in search of a vegetable patch. One of the custodians’ responsibilities is to be the first responder to these incidents.
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“When I come to the farm, I have to go and check where the elephants broke in, how much damage is there,” Garoeb said. “If I have the right tools, I have to start building the fence again.”
This involves coating the repaired fence with a thick black paste made from chili peppers mixed with old motor oil, which acts as a deterrent to elephants. “(Elephants) don’t like the smell,” Garoeb said. “They can smell it 50 yards away, so they won’t come near the vegetable patch anymore.”
Both Kasaona and Garoeb have been appointed community elephant guardians, an example of Namibia’s larger community conservation model, where conservation is managed by the ancestral custodians of the land.
This model is increasingly being implemented in elephant ranges elsewhere in Africa, according to Ian Craig, conservation manager for NRT Kenya, which develops community conservancies.
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“In Kenya, community conservation is an emerging and highly effective conservation sector and recognized as such by national and county governments,” he said.
He added that while the model may not work for all places, “the basic principles of community-owned and community-led conservation are completely game-changing in terms of saving space for wildlife.
“For Kenya, it is now about changing the conservation narrative to be more inclusive of people’s needs and establishing systems where people and wildlife can live in a beneficial way.”
At the start of the 20th century, there were around 3-5 million African elephants, but today there are around 400,000 left. As a keystone species, they can have a huge impact on the environment . Everything from their foraging habits to their droppings plays a vital role in shaping their natural world, to the benefit of other animals and plants.
“Elephants are the architects of a diverse and healthy ecosystem,” Craig said.
He added that he saw success stories in elephant conservation across the continent – for example the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) – a coalition of 21 African countries supporting international bans on the sale of ivory.
Kasaone is also optimistic about the future of the desert elephants he keeps. For him, the success of his work depends on connecting humans and elephants by highlighting our similarities. “The difference between human beings and elephants is not that far apart,” he said.