Desert Survivors of the Namib
By Awake! correspondent in South Africa
KAOKOLAND and Damaraland are vast regions that overlap the northern part of Africa’s Namib Desert. “Lost worlds into which few have been privileged to venture until recently,” is how Clive Walker describes them in his book Twilight of the Giants. This is the home of the world’s only true desert elephants.
There are perhaps fewer than a hundred of these giants left in these regions. Less than six inches [15 cm] of rain falls per year, and sometimes none falls for years. How do the elephants quench their thirst and satisfy their huge appetites?
Adapting to a Desert
Elephants were first reported in western Namib in 1895, and evidence indicates that they have lived in the desert for generations. During a recent dry period when no rain fell for five years, elephants remained in the desert, and as far as could be established, no adult died as a direct result of the drought, although large numbers of kudu, gemsbok (oryx), and mountain zebra, as well as a few elephant calves, perished. “Elephants,” concludes Mitch Reardon in his book The Besieged Desert, “are amongst the most adaptable creatures on earth.”
Although riverbeds in Kaokoland are usually dry, water from the eastern escarpment filters through under the sand, and the elephants make use of this. They dig and maintain waterholes by excavating in the sand of the riverbed. Water seeps into these holes, and when the elephants have had their fill, literally myriads of other animals, birds, and insects use the same wells and survive.
Because elephants are prolific consumers of vegetation, requiring more than 200 pounds [100 kg] a day, some may think they upset the ecology of the region. But notice this observation of a well-known authority, Dr. Anthony Hall-Martin, in the book Elephants of Africa: “Elephants in the lush tropics will demolish entire trees for no better reason than to get at a few leaves, but their desert counterparts seldom break down or push over trees. If they did, they would soon have nothing left to eat. Instead, every bit of greenery picked is eaten and we could scarcely find more than a few leaves trodden underfoot and wasted.”
In actual fact the desert elephant promotes the growth of trees. One of their favorite foods is the acacia tree, and in season great quantities of the acacia seedpods are eaten. As these seeds pass through the digestive system, the hard pods are softened, then excreted and deposited in a pile of warm, nutritious dung, ready to germinate when the rains eventually fall. Thus, thanks to the elephants, acacias are effectively replaced in a never-ending ecological cycle.
To Remember Is to Survive
You have probably heard the saying, “An elephant never forgets.” Let us consider how this applies to the life-style of the desert elephants. They have a highly developed sense of family life, of togetherness, and a calf will stay with its mother for up to ten years, a lengthy childhood compared to other mammals and second only to humans.
During this adolescence, the calf associates with elephants of varying ages, learning from them the secrets of how to survive in an unrelenting environment. He is shown where and how to find water, which plants to eat and when they come into season. And he is taught how to avoid man. It is this fund of teaching and knowledge that the young elephant must never forget when he reaches adulthood. “In times of drought,” explains Reardon, “an elephant’s memory and experience may be the key to survival.”
The elephant way of life is based on a matriarchal society, and a key figure to the survival of the herd is no doubt the older cow. She leads her family, and the herd, in a continuous search for water and food. In perhaps 50 years of living, she acquires an accumulation of survival knowledge. By her leadership and example, this is passed on to the younger ones of the herd. Thus, the killing of such an older cow by poachers means the loss of a reference library of food-finding facts.
Garth Owen-Smith, of the Namibia Wildlife Trust, says of these desert elephants of the Namib: “Remember . . . , we’re not just talking about any wild animals. These are desert elephants . . . The combination . . . is not found anywhere else in the world. . . . What a waste, what a loss to science and the world if they’re allowed to pass from the scene.” However, these giants will not easily pass from the scene of their self-chosen home. Not only are they supremely adaptable but they are also superbly equipped to survive.
Other Secrets of Survival
If you were near a herd—downwind, of course—you would be able to observe firsthand some of their survival secrets. You would notice that they gather around a shallow depression of fine-grained sand, chipping away at the ground with their forefeet, taking up the soft dust in their trunks and blowing it over themselves, until they resemble gray ghosts. Do you think it is because they like being dirty? Far from it. The coating of dust, like fine talcum powder, cools the skin and insulates it against the fierce sun.
If you remain very quiet, you will see the herd at rest after the powdering. At rest, that is, except for the large ears. Watch how they are in constant motion in a gentle fanning movement. Besides stirring a slight breeze, which is always welcome, the blood that passes through the network of protruding veins in the ears is cooled by as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit [6° C.]. This cooler blood is then circulated through the huge body and back again to the ears. Do you sometimes wish you too had a built-in air conditioner?
Maybe by now your feet have become tired from crouching? Watch how that big tusker over there relieves her feet. Look how elegantly she bends her front knee, balancing the foot on the toenails. She is resting the pad of her foot. Sometimes elephants cross their back legs in an amusing fashion, like someone leaning on a walking stick.
Another curious habit is illustrated on the opposite page. See the round stone that the elephant is rolling under her foot. It is thought that this relaxes the pads of the tired feet, in much the same way as a podiatrist might massage the sole of a patient’s sore foot. You must remember that the herd may have walked many miles, and these appear to be some of the ways they have of relieving pressure on their pads.
How Long Will They Survive?
Though able to survive the natural hazards of their environment, can the desert giants also survive the encroachment of their only predator, man? It seems yes. The local tribesmen have now become involved in the conservation of their own natural resources.
According to the magazine African Wildlife, a conservation education campaign started by the Namibia Wildlife Trust “resulted in both the Damara and Herero tribal authorities totally banning hunting in the region.” The Wildlife Trust also gained support from Himba headmen in Kaokoland, who have appointed their own tribesmen as game guards.
This positive support of the traditional leaders has led to tribal feelings of pride in their natural wildlife. “For the first time in fifteen years,” reports African Wildlife, “the numbers of elephant and black rhinoceros in this spectacular and fascinating region [have] increased.” One can but hope that this interest in their wild-animal kingdom will continue.
Then, indeed, these wanderers of the waterless wasteland will long roam the rocky ranges of their chosen home. With their natural instincts and built-in survival kits, these are the true desert survivors of the Namib.
[Picture on page 25]
Elephants maintain waterholes by excavating in the sand of the riverbed
[Picture on page 26]
Elephants roll a round stone under the foot, apparently to relax the pads of their feet
Courtesy of Clive Kihn