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Why Is Namibia Killing Its Rare Desert Elephants?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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desert elephantOn Saturday, June 21 one of the Republic of Namibia’s rare desert elephants was felled by a hunter’s rifle. Unlike most of the other elephants that die on any given day in Africa, this particular elephant was slain legally. Namibia has reportedly sold nine hunting permits to foreign hunters for undisclosed amounts. Two of the bulls, including the first to be killed last month, are “problem” animals who have come into conflict with local humans. The remaining seven will be killed for their trophies.

Desert elephants, which can only be found in Namibia and Mali, are not a separate species or subspecies. They are, however, uniquely adapted to their arid environments. The animals have a few morphological differences from savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana), most notably their thinner bodies and wider feet. They also possess a number of unique behaviors shared by no other African elephants, such as digging wells to purify their drinking water. Tourists routinely travel to Namibia to volunteer in the elephants’ conservation and organizations such as Desert Lion and Elephant Conservation have been set up to protect and study them.

desert elephantNamibia’s desert elephants were nearly wiped out by poachers before the international ivory ban was first established in 1989. The country says it is now home to about 600 desert elephants, a number that conservationists dispute. According to the Conservation Action Trust, there are only about 100 desert elephants left in Namibia, including just 18 adult males. The cull would remove half of those males. According to the organization, the loss of adult role models would create more behavior problems in the future and also result in a loss of the population’s unique mannerisms.

Namibia, however, does not see its desert elephants as animals that are any different from the other elephants within its borders. In a press release (pdf) sent at the beginning of June, Simeon N. Negumbo, permanent secretary of Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism, wrote that the country is home to more than 20,000 elephants and the region where the hunts will take place has a total of 391 elephants with a 55 percent sex ratio. He called desert elephants “tourist attractions” and said all elephants in the country are “no longer rare…but only potentially valuable.” He noted that human–wildlife conflict is increasing, and that some humans have been killed by elephant attacks.

Especially ironic given that last point, a hunter named Johann Louw was attacked and trampled by a Namibian elephant on July 5. Louw and his hunting party had reportedly received one of the nine desert elephant hunting permits. Louw has been hospitalized. The fate of the elephant that attacked him is unknown as of this writing.

This entire situation echoes so many of the problems facing elephants today. In many regions the animals are being poached into oblivion. In a few others they are mostly protected and breeding well but are also increasingly crowded into ever-shrinking habitats, putting them in conflict with both humans and their own kind as they compete for food and space. I have been writing about elephants now for 25 years and it’s impossible to say how this will all pan out. Tragically, the only certain outcome I can see these days is death.

Photos: Desert elephant bull and cow photographed by Vernon Swanepoel. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. bearvarine 5:23 pm 07/9/2014

    Megafauna in the Americas were lost 10,000 years ago. Megafauna in Africa are apparently going to be lost in the next decade or two. So sad. Hopefully we can preserve their DNA for a more enlightened age.

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  2. 2. slascker 9:06 am 07/10/2014

    what a shame you removed my comment : until we face facts there will be no way forward for Namibia and the level of corruption , backing the extinction of the rarest most vulnerable animals on earth . This i wrote is coming from the ground in Namibia a exclusive , and if you don’t allow them to have a voice , who will ?

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  3. 3. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 10:09 am 07/10/2014

    slasker, your comment was flagged as spam, and since it reproduces someone else’s content I’m not going to allow it. But here’s a link to what you pasted in: http://www.mikebirkhead.com/EchoNomads.html

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  4. 4. rboblee 2:23 pm 07/10/2014

    Update: 2014.07.10 – Update: Score: Elephants 1 – Hunters 1 – Rhinos 4 – Rangers 0 — The rangers in the Uukwaluudhi Conservancy were so busy hunting down the elephant who mauled a licensed German hunter that they weren’t able to protect 4 rhinos killed by poachers after those rhinos were moved to the Conservancy for their ranger protection. See the report on the AllAfrica.com web site HERE: http://m.allafrica.com/stories/201407091136.html/

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  5. 5. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 2:24 pm 07/10/2014

    And this confirms that the elephant who attacked the hunting party has been killed. Thanks, rboblee.

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  6. 6. SeanMcCabe 10:44 pm 07/12/2014

    And the population on course to being a new species, and bringing Elephants up to four species, is all but doomed. Great.

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  7. 7. CharliePax 9:02 am 07/16/2014

    The Kunene and Erongo Regions are enormous area and only the most western area is where desert ADAPTED elephants occur, further east particularly around western Etosha there are more elephants….not desert dwelling!

    I quote Dr Margaret Jacobson “When the Namibian community-based conservation program started in the 1980s there were about 70 elephants using the desert. The rest had been poached. Today there are approximately double that number, thanks to communities, conservation NGOs, government and donors, including WWF, working together.”

    “There are another 400 to 600 elephants living outside the desert zone within the Kunene Region. Without the conservation partnership of the last 30 years I have little doubt there would be no elephants left in the Kunene, let along desert elephants, and little other wildlife. The six trophy elephant permits over three years come from the non-desert zone – approximately 0.5% of the population per year. Two non-trophy permits could come from the desert population close to people.”

    Dr Margaret Jacobsohn is a Namibian anthropologist, writer and community-based conservation specialist who has been working in Namibia’s communal areas for the last 30 years.
    http://africageographic.com/blog/emotion-and-desert-elephants/

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  8. 8. Scientifik 9:17 am 07/16/2014

    Human greed, idiocy, and lack of respect for the diversity of life on the planet are the most obvious explanations.

    I suspect that few people realize how intelligent these animals actually are…

    “Elephants, the largest land animals on the planet, are among the most exuberantly expressive of creatures. Joy, anger, grief, compassion, love; the finest emotions reside within these hulking masses. Through years of research, scientists have found that elephants are capable of complex thought and deep feeling. In fact, the emotional attachment elephants form toward family members may rival our own. ”

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/unforgettable/emotions.html

    http://www.ktvu.com/news/news/local/freed-elephant-weeps-tears-after-rescue/ngbcw/

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  9. 9. CharliePax 9:34 am 07/16/2014

    In response to rboblee…there were 2 rhino poached with horns removed in Uukwaluudhi Conservancy which is north of western etosha national park in the omshati region, south of Ruacana…HoRN.NAM was called located the rhino and alerted MET game capture at Waterberg Plateau Park, on the thursday…by sunday, within 72hours they located all the rhino, euthanised 1 rhino bull still had his horn but was to severely wounded to treat and save, successfully treated another 2 injured/shot rhino, captured and translocated them to a safe location…Good going by any capture and release standards….They found an old carcass with the horn intact that may have been an attempted poaching from an earlier time…

    The elephant incident was about 2 or 3 weeks later, involved a 17yr old non-breeding bull. These elephants are surplus or overflow from Etosha elephants, that would have become problem animals and destroyed as such over a period of time, without the establishment of conservancies in the Omashati Region. It was a permitted, legal hunt, booked one assumes months in advance, Echo as ARA’s named him was non desert adapted bull…. While I am not personally pro-hunting but understand its role in socio-economic conservation and communal conservancy development….details are not clear, however it could well be that the herd was still hyper sensitive and agitated following the poaching of rhino early, which included an intensive noisy follow-up game capture operation with helicopters, gyrocopters, game capture vehicles etc.

    Pressure on the conservancies north and south of them have become vulnerable during the construction of the new tar road from Kamenjab to Ruacana contracted out to a Chinese road construction company….Hindsight is 20/20 vision perhaps all the rhino in these three conservancies should be removed until the situation is stablised.

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  10. 10. SJCrum 6:34 pm 07/16/2014

    They are killing the elephants entirely because they are invading locations where plant food is growing, and the elephants are eating all of the food there. Greedy little varmints. Ooookay, huge varmints.

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  11. 11. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 6:40 pm 07/16/2014

    “Invading areas where plant food is growing…” Hmm. I wonder which species was there first?

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  12. 12. CharliePax 6:46 am 07/28/2014

    Hi John I have heard part of what actually happened to Johann Louw, he was not part of the hunting party. He knew the herd and did the same thing that other NGOs active in these regions go along to do a) show them the better animal for the breeding ecology of the herd to hunt and b) monitor to make sure it is ethical and professionally done. This was also done the same way in 2008 with the desert adapted elephant west of the 150mm rainfall isobar…by another NGO and somebody who out of respect for that individual I cannot name as I will not participate in scapegoating or witch-hunting

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