Desert Elephant Conservation is a collaboration between scientists, a Namibian NGO (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), and community members to reduce human-elephant conflict and foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the desert-adapted elephants of Namibia. The project is founded on scientific research that spans four decades and builds on the community-based natural resource management programme that is a cornerstone of conservation in Namibia.
Researcher: Dr Laura M. Brown, Dr Rob R Ramey II
Partner Organisation: Desert Lion and Elephant Conservation
Namibia’s desert elephants eke out a living in the thirstlands of the Kunene region. Although they are superbly well-adapted to survive the ecological challenges of this unforgiving ecosystem, they are ill-equipped to cope with increasing rates of interaction with local farmers. Perceived as a nuisance, they are increasingly persecuted and driven away, leading to individual deaths that can impact on the entire population through social disruption and the loss of collective “herd memory.”
There are believed to be fewer than 150 desert elephants remaining in Namibia. They are under pressure from habitat loss, periodic drought in an already arid environment, and the associated problems of human/wildlife conflict. These elephants move freely between Skeleton Coast National Park and communal conservancies but due to increased human settlement, they are being squeezed out of suitable habitat, leading to conflict with local people that often results in the killing of elephants. These factors combine to threaten the future of this ecologically unique population that is valuable not just as part of Namibia’s biodiversity heritage, but as a drawcard for ecotourism.
By understanding the population structure and behaviour of desert elephants, the aim is to mitigate the causes of individual mortality and ensure the long-term survival of this population.
Objectives can be categorised into three key focus areas, namely research, community education and conservation.
Research priorities include the long-term monitoring of the desert elephant population through counts of known individuals, and the recording of births, deaths, emigrations, seasonal habitat and migration routes. The shared photographic ID database of individual elephants will be updated at the same time.
Community education is key to the success of the project. The researchers work with local communities to raise awareness of the value of desert-adapted elephants to the tourism economy, how benefits from tourism can be more equitably shared; also how few desert elephants remain.
Other priorities include collaboration with Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) in educating local conservancy game guards and wildlife officers about elephants in their area, and the importance of conserving them, and assisting IRDNC staff in expanding the knowledge of conservancy game guards and MET staff in non-lethal methods of deterring elephants.
The primary conservation goal is to provide science-based guidance and support to local conservancies and MET in their management decision-making.
The study area has been chosen to provide long-term comparisons of demography and habitat use with previous studies that have been carried out in the same area, over a period of more than 40 years.
Only non-invasive research methods are used and depend on an ever-expanding photo-identification database of elephants. We will source images from remote cameras and information on elephant movements and population dynamics from a network of local guides. We will not be using radio collars as we regard these as unnecessary, not to mention risky and expensive.
The target audience is the community game guards in each conservancy where desert-adapted elephants reside. These 98 game guards are respected members of the community, appointed by each conservancy’s council, and collectively serve 7 341 members in their communities. Training workshops (focused on mitigating human-elephant conflict) and field trips are being organised, as well as distributing printed training materials in English and Otjiherero, and field trips.
Awareness will be key to reducing human-elephant conflict, at local, regional nationwide, international levels. The idea is to spread the message that everyone who comes into contact with desert-adapted elephants, from farmers to tourists, is part of the conservation solution.
We compiled data from our research (2006-2018) along with published accounts dating back to 1975 on the desert-dwelling elephant population in our study area of Skeleton Coast National Park and western Kunene region. This includes the Hoarusib-Hoanib, and Uniab subpopulations. Our analysis of the data reveal the profound influence that human-caused mortality has had on the population. An initial precipitous decline occurred due to wartime poaching (1980s). That was followed by three decades of low-level human-caused mortality of adult elephants, which in addition to natural mortality and a low reproductive rate, has prevented recovery of these subpopulations to pre-war levels. Despite recent gains from calves born (i.e. 2016-2017), the low number of breeding age bulls remaining in the Hoarusib, Hoanib (downstream of Sesfontein), and Uniab subpopulations (2, 2, and 3 breeding age bulls respectively) is a significant conservation concern. First, reproduction will cease if these last few bulls are killed or die prematurely. And second, with so few bulls remaining, the danger of inbreeding is greatly increased.
The current number of resident elephants in the Hoarusib-Hoanib subpopulation is 34 (based on exact counts of known individuals). This number is down from 2017 when there was a total of 36 elephants, because two deaths occurred in 2018. With about 50 desert elephants in the Uniab subpopulation, the total for the three ephemeral rivers in our study area is ~84 elephants. In the long-term, it is doubtful that the desert-dwelling elephant subpopulation will be sustainable if there is continued human-caused mortality.
Our long-term research data shows that for both desert-dwelling elephants and transitional area elephants, home range and migration routes span multiple conservancies, and are therefore a shared responsibility.