In print this month

Desert Survivors

The unique desert elephants of Namibia have adapted to survive in a parched, desolate landscape. There are only about 180 of them, which makes tracking and seeing these particular pachyderms a coveted wildlife experience.

By Keri Harvey

Under a morning sky of candyfloss pink, 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 bleached yellow and brittle. Namibia is mostly bone dry and there are times both man and beast struggle to survive. While the desert-adapted elephants may be accustomed to arid conditions and walking vast distances to find water to drink, 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 is called the Hoarusib-Hoanib group and the other the Huab-Ugab group, and they live between the rivers after which they are named. Together they total only about 180 animals, so finding any of them is very special. Previous trips to Namibia to search for desert elephants yielded naught for me.

DE1As we drive the dirt track through a moonscape area from Mowani Mountain Lodge towards the Huab River, disk shaped elephant tracks criss-cross over the road surface at irregular intervals. “They definitely passed by here,” says guide and driver, Max Herold Bezuidenhout. “It seems they walked all night to get here because they were seen yesterday very far from here.” Desert elephants are marathon walkers.

Dr Keith Leggett confirms this. He has researched elephants for 20 years across Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia and confirms that covering vast distances is common for desert elephants. “Crossing directly between the Hoanib and Hoarusib rivers is 70km which the elephants walk in 24 to 36 hours, and they will routinely cover 15 to 20km per day, feeding continuously and drinking occasionally as they go.

DE3“Yes, elephants can smell water,” he adds, “up to a metre underground. So they do dig for water in the rivers, which is a behavioural adaption to living in an area where the water doesn’t flow above ground. However, after the government installed two waterholes in the Hoanib River for the elephants, they don’t dig as many holes or ‘ghorras’ because they prefer drinking at the waterholes. These have also enabled the elephants to expand their range.”

Dr Leggett says that desert elephants drink water far less frequently than other elephants, and adds that he has personally observed elephants going for five days without drinking. However, when they do find water they make up for lost time and consume far more water in a session than do other elephants. Cows with calves tend to limit their range though, because they need to drink water at least every two days.

DE23We drive another 20km before picking up the elephants’ spoor again. The dung looks fresher and the tracks are likely from last night, headed 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.

DE14“They are somewhere very close by,” he mutters softly to himself, as he drives along the dry riverbed. It hasn’t seen water for so long, 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. First a glimpse of two hind legs, then a trunk stretching to pick leaves high in a tree. Then with freshly tuned eyes, there are suddenly legs everywhere as elephants browse along both sides of the sand river. They are completely silent, like stealth diners on a covert mission.

We have found the Huab-Ugab group and the animals appear 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 of the food of Etosha’s elephants – so they are simply skinny elephants. Their legs look longer because their bodies are smaller.

DE10Because 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 further contributes to the low calving rate – since 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 rusks while watching intently as the elephants browse all 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, though we do keep our distance so as not to intrude or test their patience. These are truly wild elephant, unfettered by fences and migrating seasonally in search of food and water.

DE7“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 an elephant 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.

DE2Some 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. Then, it’s precisely because these elephants have adapted that they are still here. Another adaption is climbing mountains to stand in the cusp between two hills to cool off in the breeze that blows 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. All are ingenious adaptions to cope with the desert heat.

Max sips his coffee, leans back in his seat and says softly: “I think these elephant are totally exhausted from walking.” Three elephants are now lying down in the shade of acacia trees, leaning against the slight incline of the river bank. It’s a very unusual sight to see elephants lying down to sleep, then again these are very unusual animals.

We let sleeping elephants lie and head back to the lodge to seek shade from the now scorching sun. The herd doesn’t even register our departure, and we travel back amidst the granite boulders of deep Damaraland in complete silence. For 35km nobody aboard says a word; we’re savouring the enchanting experience – one that’s unique in Africa. Elephants are often 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.

To see desert elephants

For more information: Namibia Tourism – www.namibiatourism.com.na
email: namibia@saol.com; Tel: 021 422 3298.
Facebook: https://facebook.com/namibianexperience
Getting there: Air Namibia – www.airnamibia.com.na
Accommodation: Mowani Mountain Camp – www.mowani.com
email: mowani@visionsofafrica.com.na
Guiding: Namibia Tracks & Trails – tour operator for tailor made trips with superb guides – www.namibia-tracks-and-trails.com
email: jockel@namibia-tracks-and-trails.com