January 2018 – Wilderness Safaris once again hosted the principal researchers of the Desert Elephant Conservation study, Laura Brown and Rob Ramey, at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia, where they spent six weeks during October and November 2017 researching and monitoring Hoanib’s desert-adapted elephant population in an effort to promote its long-term conservation.
Desert-adapted elephant at Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp
This long-term research initiative observes the dynamics of the desert elephant population related to three sub-populations of elephants as well as their social organisation and genetics. All elephants are identified based on images of their ears, tusks and tails which enables the researchers to keep track of the population numbers. The data collected is then used to produce an annual census report.
Both with PhDs from Cornell University, US, Laura and Rob have been studying the elephant populations of the Uniab, Hoarusib and Hoanib since 2005. Through annual surveys, they have created a complete inventory of the desert-adapted elephant population with photographic identifications of each individual. In the beginning of 2018 Laura and Rob will be introducing more researchers who will contribute their expertise to the study.
“We are proud to see the Hoanib Research Centre become a base for many important and groundbreaking research studies here in the arid desert. The Desert Elephant Conservation project will ultimately help add to our knowledge of Namibia’s unique desert elephant population and be used in the country’s ongoing conservation efforts to protect it”, said Alexandra Margull, Wilderness Safaris Namibia MD.
The study is identical to the first scientific research that was conducted on desert elephants in 1977 – 1983 by Dr PJ Viljoen. This makes it possible for Laura and Rob to conduct a long-term comparison of the data accumulated. Laura and Rob’s research results show that the number of elephants in the lower Hoanib and Hoarusib Rivers has dropped by 30% in ten years. The decline is mainly caused by natural and human-caused deaths, low rates of reproduction and offspring survival, and emigration. The two researchers also report that elephants live in resident herds that are connected by occasional movements of individuals, especially males; a “metapopulation” that was once spread out across the north-west of Namibia. This information is important for conservationists as they strive to protect these subpopulations. The researchers also collaborate with the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) who assist to educate local communities about the desert elephants in their areas and how to prevent human/elephant conflicts.
The study continues to illuminate amazing insights into the distinctiveness of the desert-adapted elephants that live here. They may not be genetically different to savannah elephants as they are all part of the same species (Loxodonta Africana) but the desert-adapted elephant does, however, have very specific qualities learned over time enabling their survival in this harsh environment.
Over the years this has become more than just a research study but also a way for Laura and Rob to form relationships with the individual elephants. “My favourite part of the project is getting to know the elephants as individuals and following their lives over the span of years. Some of these elephants we have known for 12 years and they are now like old friends we visit on a regular basis, just to check in and see how they are doing”, said Laura.
The Hoanib Research Centre is already known for being the base for Dr Phillip Stander’s Desert Lion Project, as well as that of Emsie Vervey’s studies on brown hyaena. Guests staying at the Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp can look forward to presentations by the conservation researchers available at the time.