Erongo region, Namibia
Think of African elephants and you might imagine them roaming open grasslands or making their home in forests. But in northwestern Namibia, amid an arid landscape of rocky mountains, sand and gravel, herds of elephants have adapted to living in the desert.
They are one of the only two populations of elephants adapted to deserts in the world and to survive in this harsh environment, they have developed special characteristics. Their larger feet allow them to move more easily across soft sandy soil. Their feet also serve as useful tools, along with their trunks, for finding water underground. They can go several days without drinking and have been found to store water in a pharyngeal pouch in their throat, which they collect with their trunk when needed.
But their most important adaptation is memory, according to Dr. Malan Lindeque, a Namibian zoologist and expert on the ecology of elephant populations.
“They have excellent group memory — presumably adults mostly do — and knowledge of scattered water sources, which allows these elephants to move over very large areas, the largest home ranges recorded anywhere for elephants,” Lindek told CNN. “This allows them to search for suitable locations with sufficient plant material.”
How Namibian elephants have adapted to live in the desert
– Source: CNN
He added that while other elephants will look for 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 dens, “often in a fairly straight line.” demonstrating their knowledge of the location of these sites.”
According to the Namibian conservation organization Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA), 62 desert elephants live in the dry riverbeds of Namibia’s Southern Kunene and Northern Erongo regions.
It is only a fraction of the 2,500 to 3,500 that lived in the Namib region in the 20th century. Hunting, poaching, growing human populations, and political conflict led to their decline. Between 1970 and 1980, desert elephants completely disappeared from the Ugab River area, but in the late 1990s they began to return and today several herds roam freely in these areas.
But in this harsh environment, their survival is not certain. Scarcity of food and water means they regularly come into conflict with another species, humans.
Elephant-human conflict is a problem across Africa and can result in deaths on both sides, as well as driving elephants out of areas. In Namibia, elephants often move into villages in search of food and water, where they can damage community water tanks and destroy subsistence farmers’ crops. This can create high tensions between them and economically vulnerable communities.
In 2009, EHRA established the PEACE (People and Elephants Amicably Co-Existing) Project, whose work is to monitor elephant movements, ensure communities and elephants have separate water points, and protect village solar panels from potential elephant damage.
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,” explained PEACE coordinator Herman Kasaona.
Kasaona has lived her entire life in northwestern Namibia, where her father taught her to respect and track wildlife. At the same time, he is teaching the next generation of “elephant guardians,” including Taiwin Garoeb, who admits to being afraid of the animals.
“I would have run away, but when I started doing the PEACE project I learned that elephants are very special,” he said. “There’s a way to change your mind when you see elephants that there’s no need to run.”
Occasionally elephants enter the community, usually in search of an orchard. One of the custodians’ duties is to be the first responder to these incidents.
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“When I come to the farm, I have to inspect where the elephants have entered, how much damage they have,” 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 paste made from chilies mixed with old engine oil, which acts as an elephant deterrent. “(Elephants) don’t like the smell,” Garoeb said. “They can smell it from 50 meters away, so they won’t come any closer to the garden.”
Both Kasaona and Garoeb have been designated elephant custodians by the community, an example of Namibia’s broader community-led conservation model, where conservation is managed by ancestral custodians of the land.
This model is increasingly being implemented in elephant ranges elsewhere in Africa, according to Ian Craig, director of conservation at NRT Kenya, which develops community conservancies.
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“In Kenya, community conservation is an emerging and highly effective conservation sector and is recognized as such by national and regional governments,” he said.
He added that while the model won’t work in every location, “the basic principles of community-owned and led conservation change dramatically when it comes to making space for wildlife.
“For Kenya now it’s about changing the narrative of conservation to incorporate people’s needs and put in place systems where people and wildlife can live in a beneficial way.”
At the beginning of the 20th century there were approximately 3 to 5 million African elephants, but today, only 400,000 remain. As keystone species, they can have a significant impact on the environment. Everything from their foraging habits to their droppings plays an important role in shaping their natural world for the benefit of other animals and plants.
“Elephants are the architects of a diverse and healthy ecosystem,” Craig said.
He added that he is seeing some successful cases of elephant conservation across the continent – such as 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 cares for. According to him, the success of his work is to connect humans and elephants, highlighting our similarities. “The difference between humans and elephants is not that far from each other,” he said.