By: CJ Carrington – Guest Blogger
CJ Carrington is an lover of nature, and a well respected conservationist whose true passion is the rare Desert Elephants of Namibia. CJ has written a number of articles on the subject for various publications including Africa Geographic, Conservation Action Trust and The Dodo. Her passion and compassion for nature and wildlife are visible through her photography, writing and working closely with Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation as well as other conservation projects.
Namibia is a land of sweeping beauty and harsh, desolate, breath-taking landscapes that defy description with something as limiting as words. If you know anything about Namibia as a tourist destination, you will know about the Desert Elephants, and to a lesser extent the other desert adapted wildlife like Lions, Giraffe, Black Rhino etc. To many people, the most special of these is a tie between the Desert Elephants and the Desert Lions. I am biased towards preferring the Desert Elephants, because there is just something about them that is so unique, that the idea of losing them is more than a tragedy; it would amount to a monumental loss of ancient knowledge and sentience to the world, the death of a spirit of survival, endurance and adaptability.
The Desert Elephants are not regarded as a subspecies, so they belong to the same species of the African Savannah Elephants, Loxodonta africana. This listing lies at the root of most of the problems faced by these very special beings.
There are notable differences between Desert and Savannah Elephants, physically, geographically and behaviourally. The Desert Elephants have taller, thinner bodies and longer legs, wider feet; they have fewer babies, and suckle their young for much longer. They dig for water in special places taught by their elders, and have adapted their diet to include the most nutritious foods, because it is so scarce in the desert. They can store water in their throats for longer periods of time than other elephants, and have been known to hide on ‘safe’ farms whenever hunters are around.
Geographically distinct, these very special elephants decided to make the harsh, desolate North-Western Namibian Desert their home. Damaraland is one of the most beautiful places in the world, if you like that kind of haunting starkness. There is no darker night sky with brighter stars anywhere in this world, than in this Desert.
The patriarch of the Desert Elephants is a character called Voortrekker (Pioneer). He is a massive bull, who took a little vacation into Damaraland a number of years ago. Legend has it that stayed about two weeks, checking everything out, and then moved there with his herd. Just like any good father would, he thought he found his family a safe, beautiful place where they could be free and happy. He did not take into account that his unquenchable pioneering spirit would be the very thing that put him and his loved ones at risk a mere ten years later.
Fewer than 100 true Desert Elephants remain today, with several of the distinct family groups that Voortrekker’s initial posse split into, having been wiped out. Some say there are as little as sixty of these elephants left. So, you would be extremely fortunate to check off an encounter with Desert Elephants from your bucket list.
The Government of Namibia and their world-renowned Conservation strategy has left the Desert Elephants in wasteland as anima non grata – abandoned sentient beings in an environment changed unrecognizably by man’s greed. Typical of the exploitative mind-set of man, the Desert Elephants exist in the eyes of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), as a tourist attraction. But they do not exist when they require protection from trophy hunting. The moment the Desert Elephants entered the realm of trophy hunting, they became unworthy of protection by the MET, instead, they are being lumped in together with the rest of the country’s elephant population, of 20 000+ elephants. It is on this number that hunting quotas are issued. So, it is no surprise that a quota of around 10 hunting permits for Desert Elephants had been issued last year. Yes, you read that right. More than 10% of the total population of such an irreplaceable being will be (has been?) wiped out , by trophy hunters. This excludes ‘PAC’ (Problem Animal Control) permits, where the elephant has to be destroyed within two weeks of damaging crops, settlements or humans. Thus far, we have confirmation that at least 6 of these (normal) permits have been filled. Six irreplaceable, gentle giants executed.
Now, take into consideration both the fact that trophy hunting is an ego-based sport, and that numerous unscrupulous hunting operators have made Namibia their golden egg-laying goose, and you have a recipe for disaster. With ads like ‘Come and hunt one of the rarest animals in the world’, you don’t need to over think the implications. Desert Elephant Hunts sell for up to three times the cost of a ‘regular’ elephant trophy hunt. There are a number of things that go wrong for the elephants here:
Firstly – most of these hunts are legal (although obviously not ethical).
Secondly – the (normal and additional) money does not reach the community. They are lucky if they get one meal of elephant meat from the hunt. It is more likely that the only ones to benefit from the hunt financially, are the Conservancy Committee Members, as has happened numerous times in the past.
Thirdly – Hunting operators are selling non-desert elephants as Desert Elephants because they can get more money from it, so public accountability control over the permits that get filled from outside of the trophy hunting community is virtually impossible.
Fourthly – Corruption is rife, so if you want a specific elephant like, let’s say, Voortrekker, as your trophy, it could theoretically be arranged by paying off a Conservancy member to lay a problem animal complaint at MET, paying off the relevant official investigating the complaint, and getting the PAC permit. (And selling it as a last-minute hunt of a Desert Elephant worth a fortune). This has happened in the past, so it is not far-fetched at all. And In 2008, Voortrekker himself had a big fat target painted on his face by none other than Corey Knowlton’s PH of choice, Hentie van Heerden. It would be like trophy hunting Satao. Completely unthinkable.
Fifthly – Boycotting a country like Namibia due to their Desert Elephant Hunting practices, serves only to strengthen the argument of Trophy Hunters that they are the only ones bringing in the real money into the country. Go to Namibia with your Tourism Money, and let the world know that you are fighting FOR these magnificent animals and want to go back and see them again and again!
The number of Namibian people who are waking up to the knowledge that this needs to be stopped and their Desert Elephant heritage protected, is growing on a daily basis. A community page on Facebook – ‘Desert Elephants & Friends’ is working together with Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation (Registered NPO) to raise awareness of the plight of these animals. To support them in their fight, please visit their respective pages and assist financially if you are able to – all donations are handled through Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation, and are completely transparent. You can reference your donation with “DesertEllies” to make sure it reaches your cause. There are T-shirts and other items for sale on Fabrily.com. All funding for the Desert Elephant awareness campaigns thus far have come out of the Admin’s own pockets.
There are less than a handful of NGO’s working to protect these precious elephants by attempting to minimize Human-Elephant Conflict. If you really want to make a difference, put your weight behind one of those.
Before it is too late.
Go and survive the bone-jarring drive from beautiful Swakopmund to the heart of Damaraland.
Go and drive the long, dusty, dry, hot roads and take a chance at seeing the magnificence of the last few remaining Desert Elephants for yourself.
Go and watch them feast on Ana-tree pods, and dig holes for water in the bone-dry river beds.
Look into their eyes, and into their ancient wisdom from a safe, respectful distance. Realize that it is up to us to save them.
You, and me.
It’s our responsibility. If you are reading this, they have called out and touched your heart with their resonating rumbles, and caressed your wanderlust with their sensitive, wise trunks.
And if you are really lucky, you might get to see that very rare sight, a Desert Elephant Baby… or even the big boss himself, Voortrekker.