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Desert elephants in Kaokoveld, Namibia

A small population of around 120-150 [1] desert adapted elephants is resident in Namibia’s Kaokoveld. They’re found in the true desert areas of the Hoarusib-Hoanib and Huab-Ugab ephemeral river systems. (The only other population of desert adapted elephants of around 400 individuals can be found in the Gourme Reserve, on the border between Chad and Mali). [2]

A further 400-600 savannah elephants live outside of the desert zone in the wetter highlands of Kaokoland and Damaraland forming part of the combined Etosha and north-west population estimated at around 3000 elephants in 2004. [3]

Hoanib elephant courtesy Anja Denker
  Desert adapted elephant in the Hoanib River, Kaokoveld courtesy Anja Denker
 These desert-adapted elephants aren’t a subspecies but distinctive because they’ve developed physical and behavioural differences in an extremely arid environment where annual rainfall is less than 150mm. They regularly survive without drinking for days at a time and are known to migrate greater distances in search of food and water. They’re reported as more selective feeders than savannah elephants as they rarely knock over trees, strip bark or break branches. Their feet tend to be broader with splayed footpads as a result of covering long distances over sandy terrain.

The concerted efforts of a small group of conservationists including Garth Owen-Smith, Dr Margaret Jacobsohn and the local conservancies have to a large extent enabled the recovery of desert elephant numbers since the early 80’s. [4]

There’re few places in Africa that illustrate the delicate and complex mix of variables that environmentalists and local communities have to face with wildlife. Namibia’s Kaokoveld stands out. Fragile and shrinking habitats; an elephant population increasing successfully; a growing local human population receiving few benefits by living alongside elephants; increased activity and disturbance by DIY self-drive safari enthusiasts; the development of luxury eco-tourism projects; professional hunters with permits; anti-hunting lobbyists; Namibia’s MET (Ministry of Environment and Tourism), community conservationists and NGO’s striving for balance.

The issue of hunting permits for two non-trophy elephants in the southwest conservancies has raised further conservationist concerns and lead to even further debate following the loss of 3 known desert elephants between June and October 2014.

Find out more about Desert Elephants in Kaokoveld

Desert Elephant Conservation promotes the long-term conservation of Namibia’s desert elephant population through research, monitoring, and the sharing of knowledge. On Facebook

Trading the lives of desert elephants for votes; AfricaGeographic: May 29, 2014

Namibian government responds to elephant hunting debate; AfricaGeographic; June 3, 2014

Namibia: If We Ban All Hunting: The Namibian: June 5, 2014

Hunting desert elephants for meat raises a storm – and denials: Daily Maverick: June 09, 2014


Desert elephant; Wikipedia

Elephant Numbers – Namibia; 2004

Elephant hunting: an alternative view; The Namibian; September 9, 2008

See more images of desert adapted elephants on our Facebook gallery

Find out how to see them on a safari in Namibia’s Kaokoveld



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