In a multi-pronged approach to understanding and living side by side with its elephants, Namibians from all walks of life are having their voices heard with respect to the multitude of situations encountered when dealing with elephants, reports Conrad Brain.
In 2003 Namibia was spectacularly successful in the international arena in achieving a go-ahead for trading some of its ivory with trading partners to be verified at a later date by the CITES Secretariat. While no actual trading has commenced to date, Namibia’s position as world leader in elephant management and research, people–elephant interactions and a co-operative neighbouring state is being solidified and strengthened almost daily.
Namibia has been implementing MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) since 2000 and is fully compliant with MIKE conditions. Numerous refinements to an operational MIKE system have developed over the past year and a successful ‘clean up’ of all ivory in Etosha was carried out. A strong co-operative bond was formed between the Namibian De-fence Force (NDF) and the Etosha staff when the NDF supplied a helicopter for this purpose. To complement this ivory pick-up, advanced disease diagnostic devices were used to assess the cause of death at each carcass. Most carcasses lay in areas inaccessible by vehicles and had been previously located using fixed-wing aircraft. Ivory was collected, marked and stored according to MIKE protocol and valuable age determinations of each dead elephant were determined.
In contrast to existing methods of assessing the age of living elephants, a somewhat revolutionary new method using aerial digital photography was tested, verified and implemented in Etosha. This co-operative venture between the University of Pretoria’s Conservation Ecology Re-search Unit (CERU) and the Etosha Ecological Institute is set to take the understanding of elephant demographics to a much elevated level. Multiple herds can be photographed in the morning, and by the end of the day a highly accurate age structure of the herd can be established. From this, for example, accurate demographic data can be inferred and major population limiting factors brought to the fore.
However, Namibia’s elephants probably inhabit a cross-section of diverse habitats from desert to swamp like no other range state. To count all of Namibia’s elephants has become a task at which the Ministry of Environment and Tourism is becoming very proficient. Each habitat requires a modification in the counting survey method, which is now almost entirely an airborne operation. Later this year Namibia will again be involved in a co-ordinated sub-regional elephant survey involving most neighbouring states. This survey is carried out simultaneously by the range states and the aim is to establish an estimate of the total number of elephants in the Southern African sub-region. The hub of this mega-population is in the area surrounding the eastern Caprivi where total elephant numbers now well exceed one hundred thousand. Many of these elephant herds are cross-boundary herds necessitating a simultaneous and co-ordinated approach of the various survey teams, with exactly the same methodology and analyses.
It is therefore not surprising that the Caprivi hub of sub-continent elephants is also the hub of human–elephant interactions. Hundreds of elephants cross daily from Botswana to Namibia and back. With them, naturally, they bring huge destructive powers. The people of the Caprivi, and indeed Namibian conservationists in general, are still grappling with innovative ways of approaching this problem. It is a situation of immense proportion and solutions don’t develop overnight. However, to further address the international movement of these elephants, more and more use is being made of satellite transmitters on certain herds. Exact seasonal movements can then be determined and thereby possible options identified to try and minimise the negative side of having elephants on your doorstep.
In western Namibia, the desert-dwelling elephants, while few in number, are interacting with people not so much on their doorsteps, but at their water installations. Here, innovative community developments, re-designed water troughs and reservoirs and the provision of new elephant-friendly waterholes are all making it possible for a potentially negative interaction to become a very positive one. In many western areas, elephants are now seen as assets and community game guards protect this asset. Tourists and visitors pay to see not only the magnificent elephants, but also how man and elephant can share land successfully.
Namibia’s elephants are thriving. The approach to managing and monitoring them is as dynamic as the elephant herds themselves. The relatively new field of modifying elephant behaviour in conflict situations or for manipulative purposes using both intrinsic and extrinsic factors is in its infancy in Namibia and could contain an important option for future elephant management.
After all, if elephants have mastered using a combination of infrasound and lower atmosphere inversions to communicate over vast distances, and if we can grasp an understanding of snippets of their communication, we could have an immensely powerful tool to ensure a harmonious future between man and elephant.
This article appeared in the 2004/5 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.