Namibia’s export of desert-adapted elephants may cause their extinction

Oct 22, 2021 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise & Dr Keith Lindsay

On the 11th August 2021, the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) confirmed the sale of 57 elephants from two commercial farming areas in the Kunene Region, home to an isolated population of unique desert-adapted elephants. In that statement, the MEFT confirmed that there were three buyers and that 42 of the 57 elephants to be captured would be exported outside the country. To date, neither the names of the buyers nor the final destination or destinations of the elephants have been disclosed, although it is widely rumoured that a zoo in the United Arab Emirates is one of the buyers.

According to international regulations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Namibian elephants should only be exported with their natural range (sub-Saharan Africa). However, concerns were immediately raised that the southern African country would sell the elephants using a controversial interpretation of CITES regulations which would allow the elephants to be exported outside of Africa. Namibia has exported elephants beyond Africa using this interpretation before. In 2012 and 2013, twenty-four elephants were sold to Mexico and Cuba respectively.

On the 27th September, in a media statement, the CITES Secretariat confirmed that Namibia would indeed export beyond Africa using this interpretation in spite of the issue being currently under review at the CITES Standing Committee.

Wiping out the last remaining desert populations

Yet, even with this interpretation, Namibia may still be in breach of international regulations.

CITES Article III, which lays down the conditions for trade, states that the exports must ‘not be detrimental to the survival of the species involved’. The removal of just a handful of these desert-adapted elephants may in fact threaten their future survival. Namibia’s desert-dwelling elephants represent one of only two such populations in Africa (the other being the small Gourma population in Mali).

A fixed-wing and helicopter aerial elephant population survey, including both sampling and total counts along rivers, of the entire Kunene Region in 2016 provided an estimate of 1173 elephants; but this estimate was notably imprecise, with wide confidence intervals and a lower confidence limit of 416 elephants. In the core area and river beds, only 334 elephants were estimated. The survey revealed that there were very few bull elephants – only 22 of the 334 in the core/ river bed areas were bulls. Ground observations of the commercial farms earmarked for captures during an investigation in May 2021 revealed little elephant presence. Interviews with farmers, private lodge staff, and other stakeholders in the area all noted that elephant sightings were rare. One lodge manager said elephants had not been sighted for two years.

Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) currently conducts foot patrols in the Ugab River, which is included in the area of the proposed captures, recording direct sightings of elephants. The EHRA Annual Report for 2020 shows extremely low numbers of adult cows and adult bulls. Here are their findings:

  • Herds are small (6-12 individuals), with a total of 112 individuals recorded.
  • The western sector of the Ugab River showed a drastic decline of female elephants.  Since 2003, sixteen female elephants have died. Only five remain.  
  • In each year since 2014, the Ugab West population has had few births of elephant calves and a mortality rate of 100%. The last surviving calf was born in June 2014, with the subsequent nine dying at or shortly after birth. The last new-born death in the Ugab River West population occurred in January 2020, while in the adjacent Huab /Aba Huab resident population, the last new-born death was in October 2020. 
  • Severe droughts have been prevalent in this area for the past five years, a likely contributing factor to the high calf mortality.
  • Numbers of bulls are very low (23 adults and sub-adults).
  • Since 2017, three adult bulls over the age of 25 years were shot, two of which were destroyed as ‘problem animals’ and one as a trophy. Another young male of 19 years was shot as a problem-causing animal. One male over 30 years of age remains. The lack of breeding bulls is of major concern.

Neighbouring Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) conservancies show a similar trend in low elephant counts. This is evidenced in their respective annual game counts. The latest figures are found in the annual reports from the past decade, all list elephants as ‘very rare’.

These ground observations and surveys indicate that elephants are so few in number that the entire population in the Kunene Region is extremely vulnerable to potential collapse and any removal will likely have severe impacts on the future survival of the population.

Captive cruelty

Elephants in all parts of Africa share a common trait: they are always on the move in search of key resources. However, the desert elephants of both Mali and northwestern Namibia, perhaps more so than other savanna elephants, are adapted to covering vast distances in search of food and water. They are also extremely wary of people in the Kunene Region, due to decades spent navigating a landscape increasingly dominated by human interests and potential conflict. To remove any of these elephants from their natural habitat and confine them for public display in a foreign zoo is to deny these basic biological characteristics at a fundamental level.

Radiotracking studies have shown the Kunene elephants to traverse annual home ranges of over 10,000km2, making regular treks of hundreds of kilometres during rainy periods in search of ephemeral forage. Evolution over thousands of years has given them longer legs and slimmer bodies than their counterparts in moister savanna regions, allowing them to move more efficiently over the great distances – in mountains, river beds, arid shrublands,  and deserts – that they must cross. Countless lifetimes of searching and discovery of key seasonal food and water sources has tested and honed their abilities for cognition and spatial memory, allowing the oldest adult females and males to build up data-banks of essential knowledge that can lead them and their companions to the sorely-needed resources, in the right places at the right times. Such abilities also help them avoid many of the hazards posed by the people sharing the land.  

Confining such naturally mobile creatures to tiny enclosures of some few hundred square metres is to frustrate all their inbuilt motivations towards movement. It is widely observed that elephants in zoo compounds all over the world spend hours of every day in stereotypic bobbing and rocking, a symptom of suffering, of deep traumatic stress and psychological damage. This is a coping mechanism that attempts to relieve the intense frustration built up when the normal behaviours of movement and foraging are suppressed. Close proximity to human visitors, who are avoided in a natural environment, on a continuous daily basis adds to the stress of these captive environments. Physical ailments also abound; when elephants cannot move their limbs and transfer their weight, they develop chronic foot, joint, muscular and cardiovascular dysfunction.

The pathologies resulting from the suppression of natural behaviours are pronounced in African elephants taken from any savanna region, but they are even more extreme for desert elephants who have deeper adaptations and experiences, and thus stronger need for, movement and freedom from disturbance.

In summary, taking desert elephants to a captive life in zoo exhibits is undeniably cruel and, as a consequence, deeply immoral.


Ultimately, any export of wild, live elephants beyond their natural range in Africa, and in the case of Namibia’s desert-adapted elephants, beyond their desert environment could have immediate and permanent implications both on their mental and physical health (for those exported) as well as their overall population survival for those left behind.

If the UAE are indeed intending to import such elephants, they must be urged to seriously reconsider. The irreparable harm of their actions may never be undone.

Adam Cruise is an award-winning investigative environmental journalist, academic and author. He has a PhD in Philosophy specialising in environmental ethics from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Keith Lindsay is a conservation biologist and environmental consultant with over 40 years of experience in Africa and Asia.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This license allows re-users to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.

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