Think of African elephants and you might picture them wandering among open grasslands or making their homes in forests. But in northwest Namibia, amidst an arid landscape of rocky mountains, sand, and gravel plains, herds of elephants have become 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 developed unique traits. Their larger feet enable them to move more easily across soft sandy terrain. Their feet also serve as a useful tool, along with their trunks, to find water deep beneath the ground. They can go for several days without a drink and have been observed to store water in a pharyngeal pouch in their throats, which they collect, when needed, with their trunks.
But their most important adaptation is their memory, according to Dr Malan Lindeque, a Namibian zoologist and expert in elephant population ecology.
“They have an excellent group memory – presumably held mostly by the adults – and knowledge of widely dispersed sources of water, which enable these elephants to move over very large areas, the largest home ranges recorded for elephants anywhere,” Lindeque told CNN. “This allows them to seek out favorable locations with enough plant material.”c
He added that while other elephants will seek food and water within a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) radius, desert elephants can move 100 to 150 kilometers (62 to 93 miles) a day between waterpoints, “often in a quite straight line, demonstrating their knowledge of the location of these sites.”
According to Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA), a conservation organization in Namibia, an estimated 62 desert dwelling elephants live in the dried up river beds of Namibia’s Southern Kunene and Northern Erongo regions.
It’s just a fraction of the 2,500 to 3,500 that lived in the Namib region in the 18th century. Hunting, poaching, growing human populations and political conflict all contributed to their decline. Between 1970 and 1980, desert elephants disappeared completely from the Ugab River area, but in the late 1990s they began to return and today several herds roam freely in these parts.
But in this harsh environment, their survival is uncertain. A scarcity of food and water means they regularly come into conflict with another species – humans.
Elephant-human conflict is an issue across Africa and can result in fatalities on both sides, as well as elephants being driven out of areas. In Namibia, elephants regularly venture into villages in search of food and water, where they can damage community water tanks and devastate subsistence farmers’ crops. That can cause significant tensions between them and economically vulnerable communities.
In 2009, EHRA established PEACE (People and Elephants Amicably Co-Existing) Project, whose work includes monitoring elephants’ movements, ensuring that communities and elephants have separate water points, and securing village solar panels from potential elephant damage.
It 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 everybody about elephant behavior,” explained PEACE coordinator Herman Kasaona.
Kasaona has lived his whole life in the northwest of Namibia, where his father taught him to respect and track wildlife. In turn, he is teaching the next generation of “elephant guardians,” including Taiwin Garoeb, who admits that he used to be scared of the animals.
“I (would) run away, but when I started to run the PEACE project, I learned that elephants are very unique,” he said. “There is a way of changing yourself that when you see elephants there is no need to run anymore.”
From time to time the elephants venture into the community, usually seeking out a vegetable garden. One of the guardians’ responsibilities is to be a first responder to these incidents.
“When I come to the farm, I have to go check where elephants have broken in, how much the damage is,” said Garoeb. “If I have the right tools, I have to start building the fence up again.”
This involves covering the repaired fence in a thick black paste made from chilies mixed with old engine oil, which acts as an elephant deterrent. “(Elephants) don’t like the smell,” said Garoeb. “They can smell it from 50 meters, so they won’t come near the vegetable garden anymore.”
Both Kasaona and Garoeb have been appointed elephant guardians by the community, an example of Namibia’s wider community-led conservation model, where conservation is managed by the ancestral custodians of the land.
This model is being increasingly implemented in elephant ranges elsewhere in Africa, according to Ian Craig, conservation director for NRT Kenya, which develops community conservancies.
“In Kenya, community conservation is an emerging and extremely 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 locations, “the basic principles of community-owned and led conservation are a complete game changer in terms of winning space for wildlife.
“For Kenya it is now about changing the narrative of conservation to be more inclusive of people’s needs and establishing systems where people and wildlife can live in some form of beneficial manner.”
At the start of the 20th century there were an estimated 3 to 5 million African elephants, but today, approximately 400,000 remain. As a keystone species, they can have a huge impact on the environment. Everything from their foraging habits to their dung plays a critical role in shaping their natural world, benefiting other animals and plants.
“Elephants are the architects of a diverse and healthy ecosystem,” said Craig.
He added that he is seeing some elephant conservation success stories 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 too is optimistic about the future of the desert elephants he guards. For him, the success of his work is through connecting humans and elephants by highlighting our similarities. “The difference between human beings and elephants is not so far from each other, he said.