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Published: October 19th 2006
WKF-3, WKF-3a1 and WKF-11 at the Mudurib waterhole
This artificial waterhole had not been working in August, so it was a treat to watch the elephants visit it each evening on this occasion
For reasons that I’m not sure I’ll be able to convey to anyone who has never been to the big open spaces of Africa, I fell in love with Kaokoland during my work on the desert-dwelling elephant project there in August. Truly, to paraphrase, I can "never shake the ancient dust of Africa off" my boots.
It’s not a kind environment. The adage “if you don’t like dust, don’t go to Kaokoland” is all too true, and that’s even when the afternoon winds aren’t whipping up the dust, obliterating the surrounding hills and getting it in your eyes and ears, not to mention turning your clothes and skin a paler shade of grey. Temperatures in the hot dry season of which October is supposed to be the beginning reach at least the mid-40s in the shade and that’s even without the oven-blast of an easterly wind. Rains in the wet season can trigger flash floods in previously bone-dry, dusty riverbeds, stranding you or worse: an elephant drowned in the last couple of years, and a large lorry was swept down the river as if it were a Pooh-stick, though fortunately the driver got out alive.
But the space and
the rawness of the environment entranced me. Even more than in some other places I have visited, I felt as if I were less than a transient presence here, completely insignificant in the slow life of these ancient mountains and valleys. Yet, this didn’t sadden me as it has done elsewhere: I simply felt enormously honoured to be here. Driving down-river towards the Skeleton Coast National Park, we could have been the only people on the planet with elephant, gemsbok and other wildlife for company. The colours are fabulous: the reds and pinks of the surrounding hills with the occasional stab of quartz through the sandstone, the glorious blue of the early-morning skies, the painter’s-palate of greens in the bush and trees, the golden flush of the dying grasses, the flash of black and white in the passing gemsbok, the languorous grey of the elephants - and, this time, reflected in the water of the Hoarusib, already flowing after the astonishingly early beginning to this year’s wet season which is not due to start until November at least.
The area is currently heaving with people: well, relatively-speaking. When Keith Leggett, the scientist who runs the desert-dwelling elephant project, started
the eclectic collection of things on sale
[Note the shoe polish at the left-hand end of the middle shelf!]
work here ten years’ ago, Purros comprised a couple of huts: now there must be more than fifty and the area has now boasts its own shop (although the eclectic collection of things on sale has to be seen to be believed: shoe polish being the most extraordinary on this most-recent occasion!). In addition, the nomadic Himba tribes brought their livestock here earlier in the year to enjoy the benefits of last year’s extraordinarily good rainfall. But, by the time I went back in October, the grasses were noticeably thinner and shorter, and it won’t be long before the Himba move on.
When Keith mentioned that he would be going bush again in early October before he left for a lecture tour in Europe, I pricked up my ears knowing that he only took Earthwatch volunteers with him during Namibia’s more tolerable months, weather-wise, of May-September. Would he have a use for an additional pair of hands this time? My luck was in, and I found myself in the company of three scientists on this occasion: Americans Rob Ramey and Laura Brown had worked with Keith on the genetics of Kaokoland’s elephant population in the past and wanted to
get better acquainted with their subject-matter. Together with their two children, Eva (12) and Anika (10), they were spending six weeks in Namibia picking up dung samples from all over the north-west of Namibia, DNA being extractable from the mucus surrounding each bolus. (And before you ask, no, I did not get involved in this kind of dung analysis: the kids had a pecuniary incentive to help their father with the scraping exercise required to separate the mucus from the rest of the dung. Who was I to get in the way of such an important commercial enterprise?!)
The kids were absolutely stunning. Their respective schools had willingly and imaginatively agreed to their being taken abroad during term-time, provided they did certain work to keep pace with their classmates, but with the appreciation that they’d no doubt be learning a vast amount while working with their parents. The only “penalty”, if you’d construe it as such, was that both girls had been asked to give a number of talks/presentations about their trip when they got back to school. Every day or so, when travel and the elephants permitted, Laura would institute “school”. We came back from photographing elephants close
downriver on the Hoarusib
..the effects of the extraordinarily early wet season already visible
to camp one morning to reward ourselves with a cup of tea to find Eva working on her Spanish (in pursuit of which we’d altruistically watched “Pirates of the Caribbean” with Spanish subtitles in Outjo before heading bush) and Anika ploughing her way through her Maths. When out in the bush - as far as we could tell (we weren’t in the same vehicle, admittedly!) - they behaved extremely well, Eva’s dislike of the heat notwithstanding. Anika is a keen ornithologist and would spend hours working her way through bird books, while Eva would take copious notes about elephant behaviour. Although there was the odd grumble in camp in the early morning or late afternoon, these were extremely rare (at least in our hearing!) and the kids were almost constantly delightful company.
The schedule for the trip was similar to that in August. Although Keith had hoped to be able to head north to the Hobatere and Opuwo areas, time did not permit, so we concentrated on the Hoarusib river where we spent five days and the Hoanib river where we spent three days. That said, the daily routine varied a little from my earlier trip. Free of the
constraints of Earthwatch, we’d go out between 7.30 and 8 am, and head up- or down-river, as required, in search of that day’s target elephants. Once we found them, I’d dig Keith’s telephoto camera out of its bullet-proof (or so it appeared) box for one of us to wield, depending on which side of the car the elephants were on as one of the aims of this trip was to update Keith’s elephant identification files. This meant that we needed to get close-up shots of each ear, the tusks and the tail of each elephant, as well as, ideally, face-on and full-body shots. Of course, the elephants didn’t always (or even often) oblige, so it was a patient waiting game at times and/or a gentle pursuit of the target until he or she, probably more by luck than judgment, got into a position and light that suited our purpose. Realistically, we could only take pictures in the early morning: during this trip, the wind would get up by mid-afternoon and, whether it was the oven-roaster east wind or the cooler west wind, the ensuing dust would cause visibility problems as well as endangering the expensive camera equipment. In addition, we
the Obias plains near Seisfontein
with the campsite our first night in the foreground: just two humans with the occasional buck in the distance
had to record the elephants’ behaviour and GPS location, and I was tasked with trying to get sound recordings of elephant behaviour for a US radio station which had commissioned Keith to get “sounds of research” for a new series. During the hottest part of the day, we’d replicate our subject-matter’s behaviour and find a shaded spot to brew a cup of Rooibos tea or six, snooze and read. When the heat began to die down, or we hoped it was in the process of doing so, generally between 3.30 pm and 4 pm, we’d set off again. With the longer daylight hours at this time of year, we were able to stay out until around 7 pm when we’d head back to camp for supper and, in Purros, showers. The Huanib is without such amenities, although we were delighted to find that the Mudurib waterhole was operational again, having not been so in August, which meant that, each time we passed it (which was several times a day as the elephants were considerately in that area), we’d stop by for a quick splash under the standpipe, getting almost instantly dry, clothes and all, in the baking sunshine.
we were able to spend long enough, close enough, to him to identify him conclusively as an additional young bull in this area
did the outward journey over two days, spending the intervening night in the vast openness of the Obias plains northwest of Seisfontein. It was an amazing location: as we’d arrived after nightfall, its remoteness and beauty only became apparent to me when the sun rose the next day. Truly, we were alone on the planet, with only a few gemsbok and springbok in the distance for company. Only the existence of a couple of other vehicles’ tracks betrayed this area as having been discovered by other people at some point in the past. Curiously, however, I woke up to find everything wet - there was even a puddle at the end of my bed-roll! (I’d slept out in the open, there being no danger of lion and elephant here.) A fog had come through in the night, and the morning, although now clear, was chilly and damp both underfoot and inside the containers and bags that we hadn’t thought to close up the night before. Still, with the sun rising quickly and the temperature going up almost perceptibly minute-by-minute, getting things dried out was not going to be a problem.
From a research point-of-view (as well as from my
Barely cared for by his grandmother since his mother's death, this guy is sadly unlikely to survive. (c) 2006 Keith Leggett, Namibian Elephant and Giraffe Trust
humble perspective), it was a stunning trip. We saw, for this area, an extraordinary number of elephant - 43, plus an additional herd of five that Keith had not previously identified (contrast August when we saw about 25 elephant, itself regarded as an excellent result) - and identified two new young bulls: one Keith had identified separately some time back, but had latterly begun to believe that it was, in fact, another bull that was already logged. Being able to establish categorically that it was a separate animal was extremely useful. The second bull was one that Keith had not knowingly ever seen before. As with the unidentified herd, this bull was believed to have travelled north from the Huab river where the elephants are far less accustomed to people and therefore more skittish. In addition, the variety and type of behaviour that we witnessed was extraordinary, including several things that Keith had seen only rarely before.
Elephants regurgitating water to spray over themselves when temperatures in the shade exceeded 40 degrees. What made one particular incident the more extraordinary was that the elderly bull elephant did it for a good couple of hours in a location that
WKF-12/a1 suckling WKF-12
the "big girl" or "Nancy" as he affectionately became known
was only a couple of hundred metres away from a waterhole. An elephant’s trunk can hold ten litres of liquid: even allowing for the trunk not having been full each time, this would have necessitated a lot of water, and the elephant would not, in all likelihood, have been to the waterhole since the previous evening.
An elderly cow, WKF-18, allowing her dead daughter’s calf to suckle. While we still need the results from Rob’s genetics work to confirm the relationship, this interpretation fits with Keith’s understanding of the family group. It would certainly explain why the cow in question seemed to be such a bad mother: she never appeared to look at the calf, usually walked off without it (which is unheard of), and appeared in every way to ignore it, apart from tolerating its attempts to suckle. But, even with this access to milk, the calf is unlikely to survive. Although we had seen him appear to put on weight over a couple of days, it is likely that his resulting tummy-bulge was simply due to water as it quickly shrank, revealing his ribs once again.
Another calf being allowed to suckle both his
close-up of "Nancy"
(c) 2006 Keith Leggett, Namibian Elephant and Giraffe Trust
mother and his sister. Having just spent a couple of days with the motherless and uncared-for calf, we found this little calf’s greediness (and resulting roundness) almost indecent and nicknamed him “Pud”. Rob and Laura (and the ever-tolerant children) spent a fruitless seven hours during our hottest day waiting for Pud to defecate, but the little sod refused to oblige. Eva disparagingly recounted his pathetic attempts to walk with the group: over-burdened with his large stomach (in her view), he couldn’t manage more than fifty paces before needing to lie down (or simply fall over).
A teenager (in elephant terms) continuing to suckle - and his mother allowing him to do so. Disparagingly nicknamed “Big Girl” and “Nancy” by Keith, WKF-12-a/1 is preposterously large for this kind of behaviour as he illustrated all too well with the effort involved in getting down onto his knees and elbows and shuffling into position, somehow managing to get his sizeable trunk and tusks out of the way of his access to the food supply.
A cow weaning her three-year-old calf by brusquely rumbling at it whenever it tried to suckle, although I was pleased to see her relent at
end of one afternoon.
A young bull challenging the dominant male in the area from the apparent safety of slightly higher ground, and then scuttling off the scene when his bluff was called. The dominant bull is WKM-10, a gorgeous middle-aged male whom I first encountered in the Hoarusib August, and his challenger was WKM-23, a nice-looking young male in his early 20s whom Rob and Laura initially described as “large” - until they met WKM-10 whose enormous size dwarfs every other elephant in the area. Still, WKM-23 was not to be easily dissuaded. The next day, presumably detecting that WKF-14, the most dominant cow in the area at that time, was coming into (or already in) oestrus, he made his move on her, to the alarm of her herd. WKF-14’s herd is the largest of the area and, given the constraints of the harsh desert environment, must be likely to splinter apart in the near future. Still, that has not happened yet, and we were treated to the spectacle of a dozen or more elephants charging up and down the river in confusion. While it would have been great to get some photographs and to have recorded
WKM-10 and WKF-11 seeing off WKM-23
WKF-11 proved to be extremely lippy, albeit only when she had the dominant presence of WKM-10 behind her!
some of the mayhem and trumpeting, we were too busy getting out of the way ourselves. Even inside a Toyota Hilux, you really don’t want to be in the middle of a herd of charging and upset pachyderms!
Once the initial pursuit appeared to have calmed down, we made our way up a nearby hill to see if we could get a better view of what was going on. All seemed serene at first blush. There was no sight or sound of WKM-23 or his target (we speculated initially as to whether she might have given in), but the rest of her herd, including WKF-14’s own calves, were resting in defensive formation in the shade, the calves in the middle of the group and the adults facing outwards, so it was clearly not all over. Sure enough, about ten minutes later, we saw WKM-23 emerge, followed by WKF-14 and her saviour, WKM-10. It appeared likely therefore that she’d deliberately left her calves with the herd in order to find the big bull who, perhaps, had already mated her. WKM-23 slunk off to join a couple of other young bulls under a group of trees at some distance from the
Martyn, Keith and Jerry
...swapping notes about who's where and doing what in the area - both elephant and human
herd, and WKF-14 went off to rejoin her family, to the sound of much welcoming trumpeting. WKM-10 didn’t have to do anything more: he stood watching the young bulls for a while, then meandered over to join the herd which was, by now, visibly relaxing, the calves allowed to move around and the older elephants starting to feed.
But WKM-23 was a persistent young man. At the Mudurib waterhole that evening, he once again tried to approach WKF-14’s group but was shooed off repeatedly by one of the younger cows, WKF-11. Whether she’d have been quite so audacious without having the comfort of WKM-10’s presence right behind her, we doubted, but WKM-23 took some telling. The last we saw he was following WKF-1’s smaller herd away from the waterhole, perhaps looking to try his luck with one of the two cows in that group although, as both have young calves, I’m not sure either cow would have been too willing.
One of the unexpected delights of this trip was its sociability. With the area practically devoid of tourists at this time of year, the atmosphere on the rivers, particularly the Hoarusib, was one of camaraderie. We saw practically
The vehicle that every research scientist wants but does not want to maintain!
all of the vehicles we encountered on a number of occasions because their occupants were working in this area. As well as the elephant scientists (if I can describe them in this way!), we ran into Flip Stander who is working on desert-dwelling lions. I had heard of Flip from both Keith and Andrew Stein at CCF and was enchanted to meet him at long last. Bearded and barefoot, he is a Serious Character and an undoubted expert in predator conservation, with some great stories and a legendary vehicle that fits no known manufacturer’s specification, adapted by Flip, as it has been, over the last 25 years to his own specific requirements. While desirable to any research scientist as an office, field work centre and home on wheels, no-one else would willingly take on its vagaries. When Flip unexpectedly turned up at our campsite in the Huanib (he’d told us that he was coming but his idea of time is somewhat vague at the best of times so we weren’t counting on seeing him), my first view was of his legs, jutting out from under the vehicle where he was trying to repair yet another thing that had gone wrong.
Displaced from the waterhole by the more dominant WKF-14, these guys treated us to a lesson in dust-bathing while they waited to drink
And my last view of him was as he reaffixed the driver’s-side door: usually left on the roof during the day to facilitate spoor-tracking, the door was considered to be desirable back in its proper place during night-driving to deter any curious lions or other wildlife. He’d had to leave us at 10 pm that night as he’d only just realised it was the one night a fortnight that the radio collar on one of his lionesses switches on (and then for only twelve hours), so he had to make a belated trip back up to the Hoarusib. I guess none of us were too surprised to hear later that he hadn’t made it in time: the back axel on his vehicle had broken and it had taken him two days to limp into Purros with frequent stops to re-tie the rope around the axel (don’t ask me how that’s done: I haven’t picked up that skill yet, and I suspect few have!).
In addition to the scientists, there were two television crews, one trying to track down Flip’s elusive lions, and Martyn Colbeck of the BBC who was filming desert-dwelling elephant in this area for a one-off documentary.
He’s well-acquainted with elephant: 1 November sees the BBC showing “An Eye for an Elephant”, a programme devoted to Martyn’s fifteen years of filming them in East and Southern Africa. Martyn knows his stuff and has worked with Keith in the past. Each evening in the Hoarusib we would meet to compare notes about who had seen what behaviour, by whom and where. Martyn’s crew also included a second driver who would scout the other end of the river from where Martyn was working so we were far better able to keep track of who was where than is usually possible. On our last day, we heard that WKF-18’s group had left the area, travelling some 35 km further upriver. While our hearts went out to the poor neglected calf having to travel that distance in his condition, we turned our minds to discussing the more practical questions of how Martyn would be able to continue filming them on this trip while maintaining a base in Purros - the distances would make this option impractical - and/or track them down on his return trip in early November when the unpredictability of the rains would create huge risks for driving up
the narrower valleys upstream. Further work on this trip was abandoned when the extraordinarily early rains that we were experiencing washed the film crew out of the Purros campsite a couple of days after we had left, so I await to hear what decisions they take for continuing filming in November.
On the frivolous side, we also got to experience BBC hospitality, and believe you me, they do Serious Camping, complete with kitchen area, gas stove (as well as cooking on the open fire), cold room and gas lamps, though we did have to top up their crockery, cutlery and chair collection to cope with six additional people. We were treated to pasta with meat and veggie options, as well as the unheard-of luxuries of wine and beer, two types of salad and dessert!!
Back in Outjo at the end of the trip I went to work. As well as data entry for the limited number of behaviour studies that we’d done on this trip, I input two years’ worth of data relating to group size which Rob and Keith required for a new paper that they were considering. This was a fiddly exercise as the group size
the high plains en route to the Hoanib
near-endless vistas all around, with a herd of mountain zebra - an unexpected sight this far west - about 800m away
and composition had to be entered on separate spreadsheets for each elephant involved, but it was infinitely easier to do at the end of the trip when I’d been reminded about each elephant’s likely associates and I found it all perversely rewarding. I also wrote up my own elephant identification notes which, being from a layman’s perspective, the non-elephant experts, Laura and Rob found useful, and sorted out the four hundred plus photographs that we’d taken.
All in all, I felt as if I'd started to learn these animals, to get a better idea about their groupings and relationships, and that I'd actually made a real - if small - contribution to this trip and the scientists' work. It was with no small degree of reluctance that I began to pack my bags at the weekend in preparation for the next stage of my adventure, conscious too that autumn is drawing in in the northern hemisphere and that I'll be heading back there and back to my reality by the end of next month.
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