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Introducing Damaraland’s giants
Damaraland is of one of the most unique environments that Namibia has to offer and it’s the perfect place to go in search of rare desert-adapted wildlife. Two of the most common species that can be spotted here are elephants and rhino. Here’s our lowdown on going in search of Damaraland’s giants…
Although not a separate species from other savannah elephants, Namibia’s desert-dwelling elephants are special nonetheless. They have adapted to their dry, semi-desert environment by having a smaller body mass with comparatively longer legs and larger feet than other elephants, better suiting them to crossing huge distances across sand dunes. Namibia’s desert-dwelling elephants are one of only two populations of elephants in Africa living in such an environment (the other one is in Mali).
They survive by eating moisture-laden vegetation that grows in seasonal riverbeds and have the ability to go several days without drinking water. They will travel long distances to reach a water source, which they find using their incredible and still not fully understood long term memory, passed down through generations. By living in smaller than average family units of only two or three animals, they decrease pressure on food and water resources and researchers have noted that they destroy fewer trees than elephants in other parts of Africa.
Although elephants used to roam throughout most of western Namibia, they were reduced to fewer than 300 animals by the early 1990s from rampant over-hunting. Since then, protected under Namibia’s law and merging conservation organisations, they have expanded their range from the north, where they were safer living among the nomadic Himba people, as far south as the Erongo Region, as well as east onto commercial farmland. The human-elephant conflict has posed a problem, however the elephants are part of a high national and international conservation priority, and have been designated as top priority for protection by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Today they are one of the country’s main tourist attractions.
The desert rhino are regarded as part of the south-western subspecies of black rhino, appearing to be slightly larger than, for example, those from KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. They have distinctive horn shapes and the rear horn is usually larger relative to the front horn.
Formerly widespread in Namibia, their current range in the country has been greatly reduced. Those surviving in the arid northwest of the country represent the only rhinos worldwide that have survived on communal land with no formal conservation status. They are also the largest free-ranging black rhino population anywhere in the world.
Due to the scarcity of food resources in the arid Namib, these rhino are known to cover some 2,500km² in search of food. Rarely observed in groups, they are solitary creatures except for cow/calf combinations. Black rhino calves spend a minimum of 2 to 2½ years with the cow in a specific part of her home range, before being weaned. The calf becomes well orientated, learning the whereabouts of water, mountain succulents and other food sources.
These rhino can survive in areas with less than 100mm annual rainfall. The dryness of the climate gives the skin of the rhino a smooth, glossy appearance and they have developed mountaineering abilities to traverse the difficult terrain. They can climb high onto mountain ledges out of the heat of the valley, to catch the cool wind from the Atlantic or forage for food. The rhino’s preferred food is the Euphorbia, a succulent plant that is highly poisonous to most other animals and can cause blindness in humans.
In stark contrast to the general trend, the desert-adapted black rhino population is currently one of very few populations in Africa that is steadily increasing. With the continued efforts of organisations such as Save the Rhino Trust, the animals’ future looks bright.
Our top three camps in Damaraland for tracking desert-adapted animals are:
Desert Rhino Camp – working in conjunction with Save the Rhino Trust, Desert Rhino Camp is a remote tented camp which offers one of the best opportunities to track black rhino in the desert landscape.
Camp Kipwe – built to blend in with the spectacular setting, Camp Kipwe offers a range of activities including the chance to spot desert-adapted elephant.
Grootberg Lodge – with breath-taking views over Etendeka Plateau, Grootberg Lodge offers the opportunity to track both desert-adapted elephants and rhino by vehicle and on foot – a truly unmissable experience!