Elephants are found throughout Namibia, from the hostile habitat of Damaraland to the more protected environment of national parks all over the country. Etosha National Park currently has the largest population of elephants in Namibia, with 2 500 individuals recorded at the last count.
Great white ghosts of the waterhole
Thanks to the white clay and calcite sand of their surroundings, the elephants of Etosha are known for their ghostly appearance, which they maintain with regular mud baths. Elephants use the cooling effects of the mud to escape the high temperatures of the park which usually hover in the region of 40° C during the daytime. When the water evaporates, their skin remains covered in a film of white soil, giving them this otherworldly air.
With their large daily requirements for water, elephants remain close to sources of refreshment at all times but are most often seen at Olifantsbad (elephant’s bath), Aus, Tsumcor and Kalkheuwel waterholes during the daytime. These ethereal figures have also been spotted appearing out of the darkness at night to drink at the floodlit camp waterholes.
Unique traits of Etosha’s herds
Etosha’s elephants are some of the largest in Africa, reaching a shoulder height of 4m, although they are also known for the small size of their tusks. These anomalies are possibly due to inherited traits in the first instance and to a mineral deficiency in their fodder, which causes their tusks to break easily.
Thankfully, this has meant that Etosha’s tuskers have been of little interest to poachers over the years.
History of elephants in Etosha
Despite their lack of trophy-appeal, elephants were hunted to extinction in the area surrounding Etosha Pan during the 1880s. Their numbers have steadily increased since the 1950s, however, when a few individuals were spotted in the regions of Rietfontein and Namutoni after a long absence.
Chief game warden at the time, Bernabé de la Bat, sprang into action at this sighting and set about constructing a series of boreholes in the park to rectify the situation. In this way, he managed to attract hundreds of elephant into Etosha from the Kamanjab district, where they were wreaking havoc on local crops.
Approach with caution
While it can be intensely satisfying to see these huge mammals up close, remember to treat all wild animals with respect. Elephants earned their place on the Big Five, considered Africa’s most dangerous animals, by virtue of their size, tusks, trunks, 40km per hour top speed and violent reaction to injury or confinement.
Being almost impervious to attack by predators, elephants are generally peaceful creatures. Although a bull elephant could easily drive his tusks into the brain of any sparring partner, deaths from elephant fights are rare.
Etosha’s elephants are accustomed to vehicles and they will often continue munching contentedly, despite the presence of spectators, as long as you don’t cramp their style or block their path.
Even when viewed from afar, the interaction between elephants can be very appealing. Large herds of 50 or more individuals consist of a senior matriarch and her daughters, while solitary bulls or groups of up to 8 bachelors are also seen. The clumsy antics of young calves splashing and playing at the waterhole can be particularly amusing, while mock fights are a favourite pastime of the young bulls.
Vital to the Environment
It’s not all fun and games though. If it weren’t for the voracious appetites of these environmental architects, Africa would be overrun by forests, and dung beetles would be homeless and unemployed.
Help an elephant out
Do your bit to ensure that these amazing animals continue to thrive in Namibia and elsewhere; donate to worthwhile elephant-related charities and support National Parks, such as Etosha National Park, where your entry fees go towards protecting their environment.