There are two indigenous keystone species in Africa, meaning that their presence or absence shows significantly on the landscape. One is the humans; the other is elephants.
Both assume major roles in the fragile ecosystem of the Namib Desert. Both deserve to survive. All other people who visit Namibia’s northern Namib are, strictly speaking, exotic invaders who are not attuned to the rhythms required to exist in this wilderness setting without modern methods.
The original Hottentot ‘Strandlopers’ or Beachcombers (Khoe) have ceased to exist, leaving their Topnaar (Aonin) descendants inhabiting lower reaches of the Kuiseb River, the related Gomen in Sesfontein’s Hoanib River, and Himba pastoralists who migrated to the remoteness of Kaokoland. These cultures possess an intimate knowledge of the plants, animals, and unforgiving nature of this hyper-arid region.
The system supplying water to this parched region can be likened to the network of arteries and veins that provide vital blood to a living body. Drainage lines feed ancient watercourses that empty into transient desert rivers. Torrential rains on the escarpment result in flash flooding downstream, with surges of nutrient-rich sediment carried on churning water masses that, for a short time, discharge into the sea.
Both humans and elephants thrive on this bounty, the great beasts following the water to desert deltas where they have been sighted, providing the unforgettable sight of elephants against a backdrop of untamed Skeleton Coast. If the rains are sparse, the run-off is substituted by subtle, subterranean flows deep under the desert sand.
Then elephants and people forego the luxury of flowing water and revert to digging for moisture in the riverbeds. Elephants achieve this by powerful scooping with their tusks, trunks and forelegs, creating gorras (shallow, sandy pits into which water filters). By doing this, both elephants and people provide drinking water for a multitude of other animals. Insects, reptiles, birds and mammals flock to these tiny oases to slake their thirsts.
Unfortunately, this harmony is often disrupted by a clash of cultures. The culture of the indigenous peoples understandably dictates that their livestock, on which they depend for food and barter, takes priority over all else. Elephant culture decrees that drinking water is found at least every third or fourth day, with leaves, shoots, bark, as well as grass and sedges providing moisture to bridge this gap.
Moreover, a third culture impinges on this tenuous relationship, creating havoc through ignorance and sometimes intentionally when modern modes of transport allow people to penetrate the elephants’ sanctuary. Approaching too closely for elephant comfort, visitors disrupt the tranquillity normally existing within a herd.
The sound of revving engines finding traction through the sand, excited voices of gawking tourists; even the slamming of vehicle doors, sets the elephants on edge. The trigger of flight or fight instinct is released when people leave their vehicles and approach the ponderous pachyderms on foot.
At the appearance of humans, the instinctive reaction is to defend themselves from what they perceive as an antagonistic action. Not even an athlete can escape an attacking elephant, and the result has been fatal for several tourists, including a tour guide who was trampled by an enraged bull in full view of his guests.
Harassing the already stressed animals goes further than this. Imagine, through the eyes of an elephant that has trekked up to 70 kilometres to drink, finding people camping next to a waterhole, with a fire and the accompanying sounds of merriment. It is small wonder that the desert elephants have changed their once peaceful tolerance of early humans into reactionary rage. Aristotle paid tribute to their perceptiveness by saying the elephant is ‘the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind’.
Debate continues whether these desert dwellers should be classified as a different species. There appear to be no valid grounds for this, and preferably we should refer to them as desert-adapted. An elephant suddenly introduced from the lush savannahs of Africa into the desiccation of the Namib is unlikely to survive, although it is genetically identical. Namibia’s desert elephants have developed this ability by using their powers of association to find the best forage and locate the isolated waterholes.
This article appeared in the 2009/10 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.