The world’s largest terrestrial mammal is also famed for being notoriously water-dependent. African savannah elephants in temperate rangelands drink water almost daily and love a mudbath to stay cool. Yet, in northern Mali’s Gourma region and the vast Namib Desert, this fascinating pachyderm survives despite the low rainfall and intense heat. These herds, aptly named desert elephants, traverse long distances in brutal arid environments with only seasonal rivers and scant vegetation for sustenance.
For years, ecologists thought desert-dwelling elephants were a separate species of Loxodonta africana, like the forest elephant found in the Congo River Basin’s dense tropical rainforests. But the distinctive characteristics and unique social structure of desert-dwelling elephants are simply adaptations to the extreme temperatures and the rocky plains of northwest Namibia’s Kunene region.
Desert-adapted elephants develop wider footpads to walk over the Namib's sandy terrain
There are no genetic or physiological differences between elephants found across Namibia’s wilderness — or the African savanna elephant’s continental rangeland — but the desert variety seems to look taller. Scientists attribute this long-legged illusion to its smaller body mass, the result of a lean diet of scattered grasses and shrubs. Desert-adapted elephants also appear to have bigger feet than those in more temperate landscapes because of their extended footpads. The greater surface area stops the elephant from sinking into the landscape’s iconic burnt orange sandy plains, crossing over dunes in search of food and water. Like their black rhino counterparts also found in the Kunene region, desert elephants walk for hundreds of kilometers at a time.
Desert elephants must travel long distances to reach sources of water and food
Studies have shown that Namibia’s desert elephants have a remarkably straitened water intake. Female adult elephants and infants need water every three days; males can go up to five days without water. Researchers describe desert elephants as opportunistic drinkers and have also observed that they use their trunks and legs to dig wells in dry riverbeds — even when they have access to surface water or man-made drinking pools. Signaling their ancient memory of water sources, even if they are below the ground, this unique habit also tells of their need to purify water before they can drink.
Desert elephants herd tend to travel in smaller herds, possibly because a smaller family unit is easier to feed
Preferring to make their arduous journeys for food and water at night, desert elephants have also adjusted their feeding habits to make the most of the scarce resources. They will forage continuously for a few days before resuming the trek across the rugged Kunene region totaling over 115,000 sq. kilometers. Although elephant families are typically led by a matriarch and other female elephants, those dwelling in the harsh northwest exhibit a looser social structure. While scientists continue to investigate why they have noted that desert elephant family units are generally smaller than other continental populations. With fewer elephants per family, the herd is easier to feed — a much-needed survival tactic when food and water are days away in the harsh Namib Desert.
Carter Smith manages African Wildlife Foundation’s Safari Program, creating travel experiences that inspire a greater audience to help conserve Africa’s wildlife. She moved to Kenya in 1994 to pursue her dream of a life in wildlife conservation in Africa, and she never looked back. Her early years in East Africa were spent living in the bush rehabilitating birds of prey while completing her graduate degree in Ecology on the Martial eagle. Following her graduate study, affiliated with Kenya Wildlife Service, National Museums of Kenya, and the University of Leicester, she went from eagles to elephants. She joined Save the Elephants and worked closely with Sir Iain Douglas-Hamilton as Donor Relations Officer. During this time, Carter became one of the first female licensed safari guides with the Kenya Safari Guide Association and started her own safari company in 2005, leading private safaris throughout East Africa for 15 years. Her most treasured comment from a client was that Carter’s custom safari was not just a trip of a lifetime but a life-changing experience.
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