On 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.
Namibia'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