Damaraland, the north-western region of the Namib Desert, is a harsh wilderness area. It is sparsely populated communal trust land not suitable for commercial farming. Farming activity is therefore limited to subsistence tribal farmers resulting in a large, unfenced refuge for a variety of wildlife of which the desert elephant is only one example. Other indigenous animals include lion, leopard, and cheetah, a variety of hyena, black backed jackal, black rhino, oryx, giraffe, springbuck, kudu, steenbok and baboon. This area is regarded as one of the last true wildernesses on earth.
The Desert Elephants
Namibia’s desert-dwelling elephants are one of only two such populations in Africa (the other being in Mali) and are of high conservation priority both nationally and internationally. Although not a separate species from other savannah African elephants, Namibia’s desert elephants are special. They have adapted to their dry environment by having a smaller body mass with longer legs and seemingly longer feet than other elephants, allowing them to cross miles of sand dune to reach water (they can survive for several days without it). They eat the vegetation of the short lived riverbeds and live in smaller family groups to decrease pressure on food and water resources.
Although elephants used to roam throughout most of western Namibia by the early 1990’s their numbers had depleted to less than 300 due to rampant poaching and hunting. The population of desert-adapted elephants in the Southern Kunene Region of Damaraland was totally annihilated. For years elephants were absent from the area. This was until 1998 when an intrepid bull Voortrekker meaning ‘first walker’, lead Mama Africa's herd back to the Ugab River. Since then, protected by Namibian law and conservation organisations, other herds have followed and the population of desert dwelling elephants in the region has grown in the Ugab and Huab River vicinities to over 600 elephants. Moreover elephants have expanded their range to the south and east into territories they have not occupied for many years.
While most people agree that the return of the elephants is good and that they are potentially valuable for attracting tourism, which has escalated in the region in recent years, their presence has caused conflict with humans for scarce food, water and space resources. Many of the Damara and Herero who more recently moved into the arid northwest homelands are unfamiliar with and fearful of elephants. Man-made water points are an increasing elephant attraction due to depletion of the natural water table by increased human consumption. Cases of elephants damaging vital water installations and homesteads, foraging in families food gardens, breaking fences scattering livestock and even on occasion killing a person had intensified the human-elephant conflict to the point where local people were demanding that the elephants be shot or removed from the area.
The Desert Elephant Volunteers Project started in 2001 in an effort to assist the Namibian government and other non-profit organisations in finding sustainable solutions to the problem and to enable the peaceful coexistence of these magnificent, secretive animals with local rural communities. The long term welfare of the elephants is addressed through safeguarding farmers water supplies, building new water points for the elephants, educating the local community on the value of these animals and on valuable elephant herd research.
Desert Elephant Project Initiatives
The Desert Elephant Project is part of a long-term initiative to facilitate peaceful co-habitation between the farmers and the desert elephants of the Damaraland through research, education and development. The work volunteers may participate in includes:
- Maintaining elephant movement tracking and ID database
Data is used to keep accurate information on movement and numbers, to ascertain which farms require most protection and to facilitate research on elephant habits and personalities, a key aspect of conservation.
- Water Point Protection Programme
In their search for water, elephants can cause extensive damage to valuable water sources, often rendering communities in Namibia without water for what can be years. Volunteer teams works directly with local communities to build walls to protect vulnerable structures, which allow the elephants to drink but prevent access to the windmills, water storage tanks or pumps. While doing this, volunteer groups can expect to see some of the most stunning areas Namibia has to offer.
Focus is on empowering community members (including school learners) with knowledge on elephant behaviour so they can live without fear of the desert elephants through a combination of educational programmes, public talks and brochures for resident adults and students, tourists and the general public. Seminars for community residents and field time observing elephants are also part of the programme.
Volunteer teams can also be involved in educational support efforts ranging from a project rebuilding classrooms, dormitories or toilets and showers to building a computer network from donated computers and installing a library.
No special training is required before arrival. People of all ages and from all walks of life participate in this programme. The most important quality volunteers need is a desire to make a difference. There is a strong philosophy of teamwork and tolerance, where participants live close to each other, the animals and the earth, Volunteers will need a reasonable level of fitness as the work is often heavy in the hot African sun. Group size is maximum of 14 volunteers. Project managers are present to ensure an educational experience with due regard to the safety and comfort of participants.
The project welcomes volunteers for blocks of 2 weeks - any period from 2 weeks to 3 months. The following outlines the two-week programme, which runs on a rotational basis for participants spending more than two weeks at the project.
The meeting point is Swakopmund and we will give you help and advice on getting here. We organise your travel arrangements from the airport in Namibia's capital Windhoek, and transfer through to Amanpuri Travellers Lodge, the guest house we use in Swakopmund. On Sunday evening there is a short briefing for all volunteers at Amanpuri, which is important, as for you to meet our staff and learn what will happen the following day when the program begins. We leave Swakopmund on Monday at 12:00 noon. We then drive to Base Camp on the Ugab River, where you will spend the night and listen to a full briefing about the volunteer program for the following week.
Week One - Building Week
On Tuesday morning the group travels to the local Namibian farm or homestead where you will spend building week, building a protection wall around the water sources or building alternative water points for the elephants. Volunteer teams live in mobile base camps in the vicinity of the homesteads and elephants. Tents are provided this week and soon you will make the camp home! All cooking is done over the fire and you work in pairs taking turns to be on kitchen duty, which includes providing the first cup of coffee to everyone in bed, to breakfast, lunch and dinner.
You rise early to beat the Namibian heat and then stop around 12 to travel back to camp for a traditional African siesta and lunch. In the afternoons you start work after 2:30 pm and work for a couple of hours, before the time comes to head back to camp in time for the obligatory sundowner. Evenings are spent talking and relaxing around the camp fire, listening to the sounds of Africa.
Building walls is sweaty, hard work but each volunteer does what he or she is capable of doing, and you work as a team to complete the project.
Saturday morning you pack up the camp and travel back to the Base Camp for a much deserved shower and relaxation.
The next two days are yours to explore, read, take a swim in the elephant drinking dam and RELAX!
Week Two - Elephant Patrol
On Monday morning volunteer teams pack the Land Cruisers and leave on elephant patrol. This is an amazing week where you join the trackers on a (mostly) vehicle-based patrol traveling through the area to track the local herds of desert elephants. This week is your reward for all the hard work on building week. The aim of this week is to track the elephants, record data on births, deaths and new elephants, GPS their positions and take ID shots and notes about each and every elephant. In 2014 we also started a genetics project to ascertain which bulls are the main breeding animals. This involves collecting elephant dung, which is something all volunteers will help do.
The project believes effective conservation management is only possible through knowing each elephant personally, through its physical features and its personality traits, as well as having accurate and up-to-date information on numbers and movements. This is particularly important when 'problem' elephants are declared. The information gathered on patrol is entered onto our online database which maps each herd's movements using Google Earth. From this we can ascertain which farms and homesteads elephants regularly visit and therefore may require protection walls. The database also holds all ID photos of the elephants.
During patrol you sleep at a new place every evening, depending on where the day's tracking has taken you. You sleep under the stars, and for many volunteers, this is one of the most magical experiences of the project.
It is unlikely that you will see many other humans during the week, your company being the areas wildlife!
Aside from elephants, you can expect to see giraffe, oryx, ostrich, kudu, zebra, springbok and if you are very lucky, black rhinos, or even leopards or lions, as well as hundreds of different birds.
On Thursday afternoon after spending 4 days and 3 nights out, you travel back to Base Camp to spend what could be your last night in the desert if you are only with us for 2 weeks.
Friday morning you say your goodbyes and climb in the Land Cruiser for the journey back to Swakopmund. Friday nights are always a fun night out where we all eat together in one of the local restaurants.
Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary
Why visit Namibia?
Namibia is one of those dreamlike places that makes one question whether something so visually fabulous could actually exist. It is characterised by vast open spaces, with breathtaking scenery and great contrasts – ocean, dunes, mountains and deserts. A predominantly arid country, Namibia can be divided into four main regions. The Namib Desert and vast plains of the Skeleton Coast in the west; the eastward-sloping Central Plateau; the Kalahari desert along the borders with South Africa and Botswana; and the densely wooded bushveld of the Kavango and Caprivi regions – a magical undeveloped oasis of waterways and wildlife, providing abundant game and birdlife viewing opportunities. Despite its harsh climate, Namibia has some of the world’s grandest national parks, ranging from the wildlife-rich Etosha National Park, to the dune fields and desert plains of the Namib-Naukluft Park. The Namib-Naukluft Park is superb for hiking, with a number of spectacular trails. It is also home to the renowned dunes of Sossusvlei - said to be the highest in the world - and the fascinating Sesriem Canyon. Windhoek is the country’s geographical heart and commercial nerve centre, with an ethnic mix of people, while surfers, anglers and beach-lovers won’t want to miss Swakopmund, with its lively entertainment and sporting activities.
- Etosha National Park is one of Africa’s finest parks, both in size and diversity of wildlife.
- The Namib-Naukluft Park is the largest conservation area in Namibia and one of the largest in the world.
- Two spectacular deserts - the Kalahari and Namib - each with distinctive wildlife and scenery.
- The Namib, at 80 million years, is the world's oldest desert. Namib means “open space”.
- The Namib and Damaraland offer remarkably clear skies for astronomers and keen star gazers.
- Stunning Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon – it is 161km long, up to 27km wide and 550m deep.
- Sossusvlei are said to be the highest sand-dunes in the world.
- Superb birding and good fishing is available from the banks of the Kavango and Kunene Rivers on the northern border.
- Popular self-drive destination with excellent infrastructure.
- Largely malaria-free.
- More than 300 days of sunshine per year.
|Summer/wet (October - April)
|Winter/dry (May - September)
|Rainfall: October – December “little rains”, January to April more stormy period
The winter months (May - September) range from 25 to 30°C during the day but night temperatures may drop to below freezing. June to August is the dry season with very little rain. This can be a good time for game viewing as wildlife converge at the waterholes.
The summer months (October - April) can reach highs of over 40°C and nights in the 20°C range (in the arid central Namib Desert temperatures can fall to below freezing during the night). This is a summer rainfall area, but overcast and rainy days are few and far between. Welcome thundershowers may occur in the late afternoon, bringing relief to flora and fauna. In October and November, large herds of blue wildebeest, zebra, springbok and oryx migrate from the Namutoni area to Okaukuejo, where they remain until May.
Rainfall is heaviest in the northeast, which enjoys a sub-tropical climate, and reaches over 600mm annually along the Okavango River. The northern and interior regions experience ‘little rains’ between October and December, while the main stormy period occurs from January to April.
Population – 2.1 million
Capital - Windhoek
Currency - Namibian dollar
Language – official language English; most widely spoken is Afrikaans; half of all Namibians speak Oshiwambo as their first language. German is also widely spoken, plus some Portuguese.
Namib – means “open space”
Etosha – means “great white place”
Time difference – GMT +2 hours
Telephone – country code 264, international access code 00