How climate change threatens the coexistence between communities and the Kunene highland elephants

By Generose Kaveruire Korukuve - 21st September 2023

The northern part of Namibia’s Kunene Region, formerly known as the Kaokoveld, is renowned for its beautiful landscapes, fascinating indigenous cultures and desert-adapted wildlife. One of the Kaokoveld’s most well-known wildlife species is the elephant, which in this area is uniquely adapted to survive in the desert. Yet in the mountains of the Kaokoveld lives another remarkable sub-population of Namibia’s elephants that few people know about; referred to locally as the highland elephants.

What makes the highland elephants special? In a recent journal article on these elephants, Michael Wenborn and collaborators noted that these elephants appear to have adapted to live in mountainous, rocky environments. While most African savannah elephants tend not to spend energy walking up steep slopes, and therefore exclude mountainous areas from their range, these elephants readily walk up and down steep mountain slopes. The elephants spend parts of the day in the mountains, where they tend to browse on tree species associated with the mountain slopes, moving down to waterholes at night to quench their thirst.

Local community game guards can distinguish the footprints of some elephants that spend time in the rocky mountains from other elephants because the highland elephants’ feet appear smoother with fewer cracks than those of other elephants. The game guards speculate that the highland elephants get smoother feet by walking through rocky areas in their mountainous habitat.

The Kunene mountains don’t just host elephants, however. There are many villages in the conservancies in this area, located on the western boundary of Etosha National Park. The people in this area, mostly Herero, have coexisted with elephants for years. Unfortunately, the recent prolonged drought in 2018-19 greatly reduced the resources available to humans, livestock and wildlife. Climate change will potentially increase the risks of more frequent and severe droughts in future, which would further increase the competition for resources.

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Ekoto waterpoint, Kunene Highlands

Elephants drinking from the Ekoto waterpoint, Kunene Highlands – Kunene Conservation