Apples in the tent – Watching (Desert) Elephants Safely

Having an elephant in your camp sniffing around and getting VERY close to you, definitely is an experience of a life time. But most of us would probably rather avoid this :-). And also for the elephant it would be safer if he wasn’t so tempted by human food:

When it comes to any conflict with humans, it is always the animals who end up taking the blame and getting shot.

Of course, nobody wants to harm an elephant on safari. And, we all want to be safe in the presence of elephants.

Watching elephants is most enjoyable and safe for both sides (elephants and people) if the watchers consider the following:

  • respect for the elephants is the key to a safe and enjoyable elephant safari
  • keep a safe distance (ca. 70-100 metres) and make sure there is a way for retreat.
  • observe the elephants quietly and stay in the vehicle. Be careful with cameras and flash photos, as well as the noise some cameras make. Also turn off all cell phones to avoid unexpected calls, sounds, alarms and the like.
  • modern vehicles have hooting alarm systems and immobilisers. Be aware that both can be a problem in the presence of elephants.
  • leave elephants in peace when they move away or seem agitated.
  • camp at least 2 km away from water holes.
  • it is best to camp outside the river beds. Elephants travel in the river beds at night and you might be in their way…
  • it is better and safer to camp on a (community) camp site than to camp wild in the bush. If f you use the local facilities, you get the advantage of a hot shower 🙂 and the local people derive a benefit from your presence and thus from the wild animals. And this will contribute to saving them.
  • make sure that all food is inaccessible to the elephants. Once elephants get the taste of e. g. an apple, it can become dangerous. And of course, no food must be stored in tents! It is best to keep all food, especially fruit and veggies in an airtight container (elephants can smell very well).
  • when you are in elephant territory, always be careful when walking around and do not to walk around at night. Elephants are big but they can easily be behind the next tree without being seen.
  • if elephants come to the camp stay quiet, and avoid any action that could be interpreted as aggressive by the elephant. If the elephants come too close it might help to quietly and carefully clap the hands together to encourage them to back off. Betsy Fox from EHRA (Elephant Human Relations Aid) says that they will softly say “Huva, huva” (phonetic spelling…it is a Shimba saying which elders used on animals to send them away) to encourage elephants who are too close to back off and leave. According to EHRA sometimes it works, sometimes not, depending on the individual elephant and how determined it is to find tasty treats!
  • never chase elephants (this may seem obvious, but unfortunately, it happens…).
  • It might be worthwhile to watch elephants with a trained guide. This ensures that you and the elephants stay safe, you can relax while watching the elephants and you will get stories and information about them. AND, taking a guide along means that the local people benefit more from the presence of the elephants.
This might be too close
This might be too close
An elephant can by lurking behind any bush

The desert elephants of Namibia’s Kunene region are not as relaxed around tourists and vehicles like for example elephants in Etosha might commonly be. The desert elephants still remember the times when they were almost hunted to extinction in the 1980s. They are still hunted today, for trophy, meat or as problem animals. Negative experiences with humans, tourists or locals might make the elephants more skittish, agitated and aggressive.

The home of the desert elephants, Namibia’s Kunene region, is in large parts also home to people. Most of it is communal farmland. The people there try to carve out a living mainly through livestock farming. Thus the elephants do come into conflict with people. They can destroy property which the local people cannot afford to lose and they can even threaten people’s lives. Many communities have formed conservancies: the idea is that the local people should derive benefits from conserving and sustainably using their wildlife through sustainable hunting and tourism. 

Guides who take tourists on safari need to be adequately trained. The EHRA (Elephant Human Relations Aid) PEACE project aims to reduce human/ elephant conflict through education. Thus EHRA offers courses for  game guards and guides who do safaris in areas where Namibia’s desert elephants occur.  The courses teach the guides how to watch elephants in a way that is safe for the tourists and the elephants. The training includes information about elephants: history in Namibia; numbers; biology; physiology; reproduction; social structure; protecting yourself and your property. Field work during the training included tracking skills, approaching elephants safely on foot and how to lead other people to view elephants safely; approaching elephants in a vehicle safely and with respect for the elephants; identifying individual animals and completing data forms for EHRA’s database which is shared with the MET (Ministry of Environment and Tourism) and conservancies to help everyone know the elephants in their area.

If you’d like to see the desert elephants, ask for a trained guide. If you have a positive experience with a guide when watching desert elephants, please let us know!


Volunteering for elephants: Want to do something for the desert elephants and at the same time have a great experience in Namibia? Check

To become part of a community that cares for Namibia’s wild places, join TOSCO!

Picture credit: Elephant Human Relations Aid/ Betsy Fox

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