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Travel Gallery

Desert-dwelling elephants

The Northwestern region of Namibia is a semi-desert crossed by several east-west oasis-like rivers. Water only flows in these rivers during a few weeks of the year, between January and April, though little pools can be available throughout the year. However, there is lots of flora and fauna to be seen, most notably the desert-dwelling elephants, rhinos and giraffes, predators like lions and leopard, as well as desert-adapted oryx, springbok, ostrich and others.

The desert-dwelling elephants are well adapted to this climate. They walk much longer distances than their eastern relatives and can cope with less free water. Their numbers have increased to above 700 in the past years, probably due to higher conservation efforts, and their ranges expanded well into the eastern community farmland.

More info from the Northwest Namibian Desert-Dwelling Elephant Project


This page presents all the elephants we’ve met in the ephemeral Hoanib, Hoarusib and Huab Rivers in North-Western Namibia, and what we experienced during the encounters.

Go to:
Where and when
Getting used to the elephants
Hoanib River elephants
Hoarusib River elephants
Huab River elephants

More pictures of the elephants in the gallery: Hoanib, Hoarusib, Huab


Where and when

We had chosen to come to Namibia in September so that we’d see desert-dwelling elephants. And we saw desert-dwelling elephants! Based on the advice of Keith, we looked for them in lower Hoanib River between the Poort (confluence of Hoanib and Ganumub) and Amspoort, in Hoarusib River up”stream” of Purros, and in Huab River. In September, in the dry season, elephants tend to stay in those ephemeral river beds where vegetation is still available, and they like to feed on the seedpods of camelthorn (Acacia erioloba) and ana trees (Faidherbia albida).


Getting used to the elephants

The Hoanib Elephants were a good start for us, to get used to the presence of those giants around us and our car. Heading Keith’s advice to “just let them come to you”, we used to stop our car as soon as elephants came into sight, and would only drive by if they were surely not disturbed by us. They were extremely accommodating: the first one slept, lying down without a move – easy to observe and get used to the idea of facing a completely wild elephant only meters from us. Then came several elephants that browsed around our car. And only in the evening the first pair appeared while we were outside, withouth the shelter of our car. After two days in Hoanib, we were so used to the presence of those nice guys that we watched them while having breakfast, washing dishes or putting away our tent…

The Hoarusib elephants seemed also very well used to humans and cars, whereas the two elephants we met in Huab seemed a bit less relaxed. This is probably due to the fact that there are less cars in Huab, and there is more wind, so they can’t hear/smell you coming so easily.

All elephants immediately took notice of us, watching us and sniffing us out with their trunks raised, from a smaller or bigger distance. It was a very mutual thing: they were curious about us, but had respect for us – and vice versa! None of the elephants we met were in any way aggressive towards us – even bulls engaged in fights with each other, or matriarchs and mothers with kids were not really bothered by us. We could watch most of them for half an hour or more.

The experience of watching these elephants was amazing. In a way you feel that this is not a zoo or a national park or game reserve. They are really wild beasts, but since they are in their habitat, and you’re not in your’s, they seem to feel really okay with you. We were visitors to their world, and they accepted the visit kindly and with some curiousity, but never with the attitude of a tame animal or the agression of one that had made bad experiences with humans. We were just an interesting chance in their day. But they were a extraordinary treat in our days!


Hoanib elephants

Group of 9, group of 5

Staying for two nights in the Hoanib riverbed, we saw several of the elephants more than once. The Group of 9 consisted of 3 adult cows (the matriarch with tusks), 4 subadults (at least one a bull with tusks) and 2 young (the younger one probably the calf of the matriarch). The next day, we saw 5 of them again, this time the matriarch, one adult cow, 2 subadults (one of which the bull) and the smaller of the calves.

We met the Group of 9 first near the water tanks, in the afternoon. Our first encounter with elephants that didn’t play dead. The matriarch took a few steps towards us, rolled up her trunk to sniff us, found out we’re no danger, and went on with her browsing business – only to keep back the youngster in the group when he wanted to come and meet us. More interesting to the Group of 9 was the encounter with the Group of 3 that followed. The small group decided to make a detour, but little Youngster of Group of 9 wanted to say hello to his pal in Group of 3, so he ran towards them with flapping ears and tail. Unfortunately, they didn’t appreciate the visit, so Youngster darted back to Mummy’s shelter with flapping ears and tail…

We saw the big group again during our breakfast the next day – now only 5 of them (we didn’t see the other 4 again). This time they kept a bigger distance, with us being outside of our car. However, they kept on browsing and eventually moved around us and further on down the riverbed. We met the Group of 5 again that evening, moving towards Amspoort. They encountered two lone bulls, the first one about an hour from Amspoort. The bull was considerably bigger than the matriarch, so the matriarch with her calf and a subadult decided to take a detour – but only after the calf had finished suckling. The second bull was enjoying a juicy shrub, a bit downstream of Amspoort, when the party arrived. Just seeing the matriarch approach with her group in tow, he decided to leave. Must be a well-known girl, this matriarch…


Group of 3

The Group of 3 consisted of a mother with small tusks, her baby, and an older juvenile. We met them twice. On the first day they encountered the Group of 9, but went out of their way. We stayed with the Group of 3 for a while and watched them browsing. It seemed that they minded us much less than they minded their colleagues.

On the next day, we met them again a bit upstream – they hadn’t walked far. The young one lay down asleep (why do you always think they’re sick if you see an elephant lying down?), while mother and sister were having lunch. We again watched them for a longer time from a distance, until they decided to move on. The young one didn’t feel awake enough, and only after a clear kick from his mother he got up and followed them. Since they went into the same direction we intended to take, we slowly passed them after a while. The young guy first hid behind his mother, but then ventured out alone, in front of our car. As soon as he realized that he was not yet brave enough to do this, he hurried back to mommy…


"Crooked Tusks" and friends

“Crooked Tusks” was probably the biggest elephant we met in Hoanib, and also the most terrifying – even though he didn’t intend to…

We first met him during our dinner in "elephant camp". We were halfway through our braaivleis when I saw two elephants approaching from the west. It was the first time we saw elephants while being out of the car. First we took it very easy, but when they came closer and closer, we moved our dinner into the car, and moved ourselves near our car... It was a big male with a smaller and a bigger tusk, at a strange angle – crooked tusks. He was accompanied by a younger male whose tusks were straight, but only ca. 20 cm long. They were extremely curious. They really sneaked up from behind some bushes, until they were about 15 m away from us. There Mr. Crooked Tusks stood still, sniffed around, and only after a two-minute staring competition, they moved on. A strange experience, being so intensely watched by a really wild animal who isn’t really afraid of you but doesn’t really want to attack you either (luckily)!

We saw Crooked Tusks again the next morning while driving upstream again. His companion from the evening before had left, but he was heavily engaged in a trunk-wrestling competition with another bull, about the same size as him (but with straight tusks). When we arrived, they cast a quick glance at us and continued wrestling for several minutes. There was no obvious winner, and they didn’t seem to be very cross at each other afterwards. Maybe it was just a jostle amongst friends. However, Crooked Tusks thought he was hungry, so he moved to a tree close to our car and had breakfast – posing really nicely for us. I swore about the 100st time at me for breaking my big camera…


The breakfast couple

We met those two elephants just once – or better: they met us. I think I saw them come before they spotted us. During breakfast. It was on our second morning, near Amspoort, so we had gotten used to the presence of elephants. We felt we could continue our breakfast. And they decided to join. Well, luckily they didn’t really join (do elephants eat all-bran?), but started to chew down a tasty shrub ca. 30 m away. The shrub was big enough for them to stay for at least an hour. First we still took care not to move too briskly or talk too loud, but finally really had to break camp, wash dishes and get going. The elephants didn’t mind. I believe they were there to watch us. Maybe there is a “desert-dwelling humans” project going on in the elephant world.


One-tusk Circus Elephant

The best show of a single elephant was given by One-tusk Circus Elephant. It was noon of the second day, and we had just watched a giraffe trying to stretch as long as possible and extend the tongue higher than any other giraffe before – to get to the camelthorn seedpods. Just a few minutes after, an elephant tried the same stunt (well, without the tongue part). He was a male with just the right tusk left. He stretched his back and his trunk to get closer to the fruit – no chance. So finally he sat back, settled himself and raised his front leg to twist and reach just a bit further – successfully! Unfortunately the giraffes can really reach a bit higher.


The Not-so-dead One

This was the first elephant we met. It came quite as a shock, because he was lying down and playing dead elephant, on a small “island” in the middle of the riverbed near the Poort. We didn’t really know whether elephants use to lay down or not. And this guy really didn’t move. No ear flapping. No raising of his chest while breatheing. We carefully drove around the island to watch him from the other side. Only after about 5 minutes we thought we saw a tiny ear and trunk movement. However, not being sure about the wellbeing of this elephant, we took GPS coordinates of his position. He had moved away the next day, so we supposed he is okay. But he could really have put up a better show for us, being the first elephant we met!


Single bulls

In addition to the the two part-time companions of Crooked Tusks, we saw three more elephants, all single bulls. One a younger nice guy, one the bigger nice guy that was met by the Group of 5 close to Amspoort, and one the timid big guy who they met after Amspoort. Judging from the direction they came from, we believe we had only seen them once – bringing our elephant count in Hoanib to 22.


Hoarusib elephants

The Purros communal campsite is situated along the Hoarusib riverbed, and is famous for elephants walking through the camp. We didn’t see any elephants there, but several during our day trip up Hoarusib (and over to Khumib River).


Group of 3

The first trio was actually very close to the campsite – they must have passed the camp at night, coming upstream. We saw two of them first from the top of the little view-hill on the south bank of the river. They were slowly strolling east, browsing, but then disappeared into the trees. We left the hill soon after and followed the track in the same direction. Coming into the open riverbed, we saw them again. It was a big cow without tusks, and a smaller male with tusks ca. 40 cm long. We stopped immediately, and let them pass some 50 m from us. As there was water flowing here, they took their time to drink and spray mud on their backs. After a while, they came in our direction and passed the car, disappearing again in the riverbank vegetation. However, as we clearly heard the female calling in the low grumbling voice, we waited a bit longer. And soon, a third elephant appeared from the view-hill base. This was a female probably about the same size as the first one. Also she took her time to drink, approached our car, had a close look at it and us and then disappeared into the bushes.


Group of 7 - bullfight

The Group of 7 we met further upstream, still a 15 min drive from the Hoarusib gorge. It consisted of 2 cows (1 of them with tusks), two subadults (both bulls?) and two bigger calves – and one older bull. When we arrived at the other side of the riverbed, the elephants briefly watched us, but then went on with their business. The older bull and the bigger of the subadult bulls soon engaged in a fight, wrestling their trunks and pushing the other around for several minutes. The other elephants didn’t care very much, they just seemed to wait for the fight to go over. One of the calves even slept through it. The bigger bull was clearly the winner, even though this was not a very aggressive thing. The smaller one casually stepped away and resumed eating. We drove on after a while, just to see the sleeping elephant being waken up, and the 7 elephants would move on together.


Huab elephants

Timid one

In Huab we just saw two lone elephant bulls. The first obviously didn’t hear us coming due to the wind, so he was really startled to see us turn around a bush. He was ca. 30 m away on a higher bank, and left into the bushes after flapping his ears once or twice.


Left-tusk Bull

We met the second one near a hill of basalt stones tumbling down in the riverbed – this was a place we had noted on our earlier trip to Huab, and we planned to stay in that region overnight. The elephant bull came up the river bed into our direction. When we saw him, we stopped at the foot of the hill. The elephant made towards us, and we noticed he had the right tusk missing – broken with only a little stump still left. He came straight towards us, but more in an inquisitive than an aggressive manner. Again, he watched us very closely (maybe he’s also a researcher in the “desert-dwelling humans” research project?), picked up some seedpods, and then strolled past us, away.


Last update:  23:10 12/03 2007
Kalahari Meerkats
Augrabies NP
Naries - more flowers
Kleinzee diamond mine
Namibia's South, Orange
Fish River Canyon
Koichab Dunes
D707 scenic route
Büllsport & Naukluft
Windhoek & Waterberg
Outjo & Khowarib Gorge
Hoanib & Amspoort
Desert Elephants
Purros, Hoarusib & Khumib
Huab, Doros, Ugab
Erongo, Boshua, WDH
Travel facts
Gallery of this trip

Hoanib - the Not-so-Dead-One

Hoanib Group of 9 meeting Group of 3

Hoanib Crooked Tusks & friend

Hoanib Group of 3

Hoanib Single bull

Hoanib One-tusk Circus Elephant

Hoanib Group of 5 arriving at Amspoort

Hoanib - The breakfast couple

Hoarusib Group of 3, 3rd

Hoarusib Group of 7 - bullfight

Hoarusib - Group of 7

Huab first bull

Huab - bull at basalt hill

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