Looking for the wild (VII)

The desert elephants

Text and photographs: Andoni Canela

The landscapes of the Kunene desert in Namibia and the Kalahari in Botswana are the setting for «The Desert Elephants», the last chapter of En busca de lo salvaje – Looking for the Wild, which has become a book.

In north-western Namibia, near the world’s oldest desert, you can find one of the few remaining desert elephant populations. Survival is even more difficult for these pachyderms than for those in the savannah as they must migrate hundreds of kilometres, and may even dig holes into the ground in search of water. And if nature were not hostile enough, there is the threat of hunting.

In this desert region around the Hoarusib, Ganamub, Hoanib and Jumib rivers, there are periods of extreme drought. A rocky desert can be seen from one of the nearby peaks. There are a few trees along the invisible river bank, a bed of sand and dust. Here, on the Skeleton Coast, there are only 150 desert elephant specimens living in extreme conditions, without water after the droughts over the last few years, and in rough terrain with sparse vegetation.

Namibia completely ignores these elephants, which have adapted to living in the desert for thousands of years and have unique characteristics. They walk hundreds of kilometres in search of underground water and eat from the trees along the dry river bed. This elephant population is being severely reduced due to drought, persecution and poaching.

Watching a herd of elephants in a landscape surrounded by sand dunes and rocky mountains is awesome while, at the same time, their thin bodies, wrinkled skin and grey-white colour may be a harbinger of their uncertain future.

These desert elephants in the Kunene Region of Namibia are a distinctive population, adapted to life in an extremely arid environment. And there is just another desert elephant population in the world: it is in the Sahara, in Mali, and it has 400 animals, which are also highly threatened.

Adapting to such a harsh ecosystem has led to some notable physical and also behavioural differences with regard to the renowned African savannah elephant. Until recently, desert elephants were considered a subspecies of the other, but recent genetic studies have called it into question. And yet, the differences are obvious: the desert elephants are as big as their savannah counterparts– the males can reach up to four metres in height- although their bodies may appear less bulky due to a diet poorer in quantity and nutrients. However, despite this, they may exceed six tons in weight.

One of the distinctive features of desert elephants is their long-distance migration in search of water and food. To do this, they have developed longer legs than their savannah relatives, which allow them to travel long distances on rocky and sandy terrain. Nevertheless, this does not protect them from suffering numerous footpad injuries and cracks in their nails, which is the first cause of death among many baby and young elephants.

Another behavioural characteristic is the way in which they often search for water: they dig wells into the ground to reach the precious liquid. Elephants normally drink every day, but the desert elephant has adapted to go up to several days without drinking if necessary. The males, when they have an opportunity to drink, can drink more than 150 litres of water a day.

They must also use several strategies to find food, such as stretching their body to stand on their hind legs, almost in a ballerina posture, to be able to reach the greenest shoots on trees that seem to have been pruned up to five metres in height.

Their tusks (which are actually incisors) are specialised teeth that grow throughout an elephant’s lifetime. It is estimated that older elephants living in the Namib Desert are over half a century old. However, in the Hoarusib and Hoanib population, many females are tuskless. This tusklessness in females is an inherited trait that tends to run within the same family group. Elephant herds are matriarchal groups: it is the oldest female that leads the family (sisters, daughters…and their young). Being the oldest, the matriarch has the longest memory and knowledge of water sources, seasonal foods and migration routes to help her family survive.

The conflict between humans and elephants is without doubt the greatest threat to this pachyderm population. Namibia is increasingly promoting hunting trophies as they mean income for the country, and has shown a disregard for this unique pachyderm population by putting it on an equal footing with the other pachyderms in the country’s savannah. Therefore, authorities are granting hunting permits in exchange for political favours in these regions. This situation may soon bring the end to a population of elephants that have adapted to living in this unique place for thousands of years. According to the Namibian government, there are only 300 specimens of the desert elephant, but conservationist sources like The Conservation Action Trust say that there are probably fewer than 100 live elephants, among which there are very few reproductive adult elephants (only 18 specimens were recorded). Only between 2013 and 2015, 26 elephants were found dead in this area. More than a third of these had been shot dead, in principle, for different reasons. The worst thing is that most of these 26 dead elephants were females in reproductive age, thus drastically reducing the growth capacity of the elephant population in this area.

Faced with these threats, these pachyderms manage to survive, being most active at night, when you can hardly see anything in the dark, avoiding daytime heat and the dehydration caused by the desert. As they usually do, these huge animals stretch their trunk to reach out for those green leaves they need to survive. They will need thousands and thousands of leaves until they reach the two hundred kilos of vegetable matter an elephant can eat daily. 

An extremely arid environment

Dawn. The roar of a leopard can be heard in the distance and shortly before sunrise, a few baboons start running desperately from one side of the river to the other; tense wait. The leopard does not turn up. But the baboons will not be seen again for a while. The monkeys have crossed a dry river bank. It has been like that for months. In fact, there are years when the flow is less than a drop of water. It has already been too many nights camping under the stars by the fire. There are extreme places and then, there is the Namib desert. There are dangerous coasts and then, the Skeleton Coast. This is true wilderness; barren; with deep sand tracks, rocky paths, jagged rocks, huge dunes, rivers without water and narrow gorges. From here you can watch scenes like that of the baboons, gaze at an extreme, contrasting landscape where the blue of the Atlantic mixes with the red of the sand reaching the Skeleton Coast.

There is no sign of the leopard. But, although it may seem impossible at first glance, there are other animals in this desert, besides elephants, struggling to get by: lions, hyenas, springboks, orxy, ostriches and even giraffes that reach out to pull down a few tender shoots in the scarce trees, digging their spindly long legs as they walk in the sand dunes.