Since I was a child the desert elephant has been like a mythical animal, an animal I never thought I should meet. The same applies to the forest elephant and I have only seen the footprints in Uganda’s rainforest. The wildlife was not the reason why we went to Namibia some years ago, but we wanted to experience the desert landscape. The Namib Desert, the world’s oldest, cover the entire western part of Namibia and the reason for the arid climate is the cold Benguela stream that runs along the coast of South West Africa.
But lets talk about the desert elephant. I did not expect to see it, but when we stayed in Twyfelfontein in Damaraland for a few days, we had the opportunity to go on a desert elephant safari. Of course we had to do that. We started at sunrise and our transportation was a big old truck, like nothing I had ever seen. It was not particularly comfortable; the truck had no shock absorbers. But the expectation of seeing a desert elephant or may be several, made the effort worth it.
Damaraland is located northeast of the coastal city Swakopmunde and is a rocky desert with dry river lakes, mountains and plains and some dunes in between. In addition, they have rock carvings, more than 2,000 figures are carved into the rock walls of the area. But that’s another story, at this moment we enjoy the sunrise and I’m looking forward to meeting a desert elephant, maybe.
After an hour’s drive we stop in a dried-up river and the guide shows us clear footprints of elephants. He tells us that the desert elephant is not a specific elephant species, but an African bush elephant that over many generations has learned how to survive in the arid desert. They have gone through an evolution and developed wider feet than other bush elephants and are masters of digging in after water in the dry river. They also eat trees and plants that contain a lot of fluid.
We follow the traces of the elephants and it does not take long before we see a whole herd of desert elephants at full speed across the plains. They march after each other in line and it seems that they have a clear goal. They do not care about the noisy car and us so we drive along in the same direction. Soon they get the speed up and our guide says that they smell water and that’s why they set the speed up. There is a village near by with big water tower, so that’s where they are going.
In the village people were up on their feet and seemed curious when the elephants and we approached the village and the water tower on the plain. There were canals of water around the tower. The smallest elephant guns ran into the water channel, and the biggest managed to get over the edge of the water tower. A little arguing among the elephants, but everyone got what they needed to drink today.
The village is used to desert elephants coming on a regular basis and they seemed to appreciate the visit. The villagers were as excited as I was, meeting not only one desert elephant, but a whole herd.
The desert elephant in Namibia is protected and they work hard to improve their conditions. It is estimated that there are approximately 600 desert elephants in Namibia today. But unfortunately, sometimes the authorities grant permissions for shooting some elephants and it has caused some controversy. Except in Namibia, desert elephants are found only in Mali. They drink water daily if available, but can go 3-4 days without any water. The desert elephants live in smaller groups than elephants else in Africa. Normally, an elephant herd will consist of family members, but in the desert elephant groups it has been found that they are not just family. Either way, the biggest female and female who has the most knowledge is always a matriarch, that is, the leader of the group. For the desert elephant knowledge is particularly important. They have had to learn to survive in this tough and arid landscape through many generations.