The unique desert elephants of Namibia have adapted to life in a parched, desolate landscape. But there are so few left that tracking and finding them is unforgettable
Under an early morning candyfloss sky, long-horned Nguni cattle walk in single file in search of grazing for the day. Here in Damaraland, the earth is scorched and the remaining grass is brittle and bleached yellow. Namibia is mostly bone-dry and man and beast often struggle to survive.
Damaraland’s hardy residents
While the desert-adapted elephants may be accustomed to arid conditions and to walking vast distances to find water, this is also what makes them difficult to find. They could be almost anywhere on this great swathe of desertscape. Just two groups of true desert-dwelling elephants live in Namibia, one the Hoarusib-Hoanib group and the other the Huab-Ugab, each living between the rivers after which they are named. Together they total only about 180 animals, so finding any of them is very special.
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Previous trips to Namibia in search of them yielded naught for me, but as we drive the dirt track through the moonscape from Mowani Mountain Lodge towards the Huab River, elephant tracks criss-cross the road surface at intervals. “They’ve certainly passed through here,” says guide and driver Max Herold Bezuidenhout. “It seems they walked all night to get here because they were seen yesterday very far away.” Desert elephants are marathon walkers.
Dr Keith Leggett confirms this. For 20 years, he has been researching elephants across Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, and confirms that they cover vast distances. “Crossing directly between the Hoanib and Hoarusib rivers is 70km, which the elephants walk in 24 to 36 hours,” says Keith. “And they will routinely cover 15 to 20 kilometres per day, feeding continuously and drinking occasionally as they go. “Elephants can smell water,” he adds. “Up to a metre underground. So they dig for water in the rivers, which is a behavioural adaption to living in an area where water doesn’t flow above ground. But after the government installed two waterholes for the elephants in the Hoanib River, they don’t dig as many holes or ghorras because they prefer drinking at the new waterholes. These have also enabled the elephants to expand their range.”
Dr Leggett explains that desert elephants drink water far less frequently than other elephants, and adds that he has personally observed elephants going for five days without water. However, when they do find water they make up for lost time and consume far more in a session than do other elephants. But cows with calves tend to limit their range because they need to drink water at least every two days.
One the elephants’ trail
We drive another 20km before picking up the elephant spoor again. The dung looks fresher and the tracks are likely from last night, heading towards the Hoab River. Driving through a sparse Damara village that is so perfectly neat it’s hard to believe people live there, we finally reach the Hoab riverbed, which is solid sand. Max has a smile on his face as he stops the vehicle and points to the ground. “See the small ridges on the surface of these tracks?” he asks. “That means they are very fresh because the wind hasn’t yet had a chance to smooth them over. The elephants walked past here today.”
As he drives along the dry riverbed, he mutters softly to himself, “They are somewhere very close by.” The riverbed hasn’t seen water for so long and the surface is rutted; thorny acacias line the sandy banks and there’s not a blade of grass anywhere. It’s hard to believe any animal could survive here, but they do.
And then we see them for ourselves. First, two hind legs, then a trunk stretching to pick leaves from high in a tree. Then, with freshly tuned eyes, we suddenly see the legs everywhere of elephants browsing on both sides of the riverbed. There is not a sound, just silence, as if they’re stealth diners on a covert mission.
We have found the Huab-Ugab group, which appears longer-legged and with thinner tusks than usual. “It’s an optical illusion,” says Dr Leggett, “they are exactly the same size as Etosha elephants.” The difference is that desert elephants are permanently on diet because food is scarce – they exist on half the food of Etosha’s elephants – so they are simply skinny elephants. Their legs look longer because their bodies are smaller.
Because of the harsh conditions in which they live, desert elephants have much lower birth and survival rates. Elephant cows also nurse their calves much longer than in other areas, which contributes to the low calving rate – cows don’t ovulate while nursing. However, Namibia’s desert elephants are genetically identical to Etosha and savannah elephants. They are not a sub-species, as was previously suspected, but are savannah elephants that have adapted to desert conditions and become the ultimate survivors.
We pour steaming coffee from the flask and dip in our rusks while watching intently as the elephants browse around us. Encircled by desert elephants silently enjoying their thorny breakfast is an evocative way to start the day. The scattered herd hardly seems to notice us, although we keep our distance so as not to intrude or test their patience. These are truly wild elephants, unfettered by fences and migrating seasonally in search of food and water.
“They are constantly moving,” confirms Dr Leggett. “If you study them long enough, you find they have a cycle of a few days where they move up and down the rivers, constantly feeding but only taking small amounts from the trees.” On occasion, elephant bulls will completely destroy a tree, but this is very rare.
We watch a cow patiently teaching her young one how to strip bark from an acacia tree; there’s a distinct sense the elephants are treading as lightly as possible on the environment. Bark is gently stripped, but not too much, and there is no ring barking apparent on any of the trees.
Before long, the cow moves off to another tree, taking her calf with her to continue the lesson. It’s as if the elephants know deep in their DNA that they live in a place of extremely scarce resources, and if they destroy these they will ultimately destroy themselves.
Some adults balance on three legs to reach higher into the thorn trees for greener, softer leaves and it’s unusual to see such bulky animals doing a circus act to feed. Just another adaption that allows them to still be here. Yet another is climbing mountains to stand in the cusp between two hills, to cool off in the breeze here in the afternoons. They also take water out of an oesophageal pouch and spray it behind their ears to cool down. In intense heat, the elephants will urinate on sand, then scoop the slurry over themselves to keep cool.
Max sips his coffee and leans back in his seat. “I think these elephant are exhausted from walking,” he says, looking at three lying in the shade of acacias, on the slight incline of the riverbank. We too need shade from the scorching sun, and head back to the lodge.
The herd doesn’t even register our departure, and we travel back through the granite boulders of deep Damaraland in complete silence. For 35 kilometres no one says a word, as we savour our unique experience. Elephants are lauded for their intelligence and apparent emotional traits, but Namibia’s desert elephants are even more intriguing. They seem to know that if you don’t adapt you will die, and treading lightly is key.
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Words and Photography Keri Harvey