Namibian Desert Elephants in the Line of Fire
Cindy Tilney
30 May, 2014

Namibia: Just months ahead of the elections in November, the Namibian government has issued hunting permits for rare desert elephants in the northwestern Kunene region, a unique desert region of harsh but compelling beauty, in which few large game species can survive.

The permits have been issued in an area where the local people have not previously shown much support for the ruling government and this, given the timing, suggests that vote-buying, rather than conservation, is the motive behind the move.

“The last time hunting permits were issued for these desert elephants was also right before elections,” says a prominent conservationist who prefers to remain nameless. “The local communities will receive the meat from the kill, as well as money for the hunting permits, which they sell on to professional hunters. But the irony is that, spread across everyone in these communities, each person will receive only the tiniest amount of food and money. Word from those in the know is that these orders came directly from the top – in other words, the politicians are overriding government conservationists.”

A spokesperson for the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), Romeo Muyunda, yesterday confirmed the that the permits had been issued saying, “The local people need to benefit from the elephants in some way or another, or they will begin poaching them,” but declined to comment further.

The Namibian desert elephants are one of only two remaining populations in the world, the other of which is found in Mali.

Current figures for remaining desert elephants in Namibia vary dramatically between government and independent sources.  While an aerial census conducted by the government in the Western Desert two years ago recorded 388 desert elephants, independent conservationists estimate the true figure is far lower – less than one hundred – and the Kunene Regional Ecological Assessment of March/April 2013 counted a mere 53 elephants in the region.

What is clear is that their numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years, and a 2012 research report by the NGO Desert Elephant Conservation stated that “there are now fewer elephants than the number documented by Dr P.J. Viljoen at the height of poaching and drought during the war years of the early 1980s”. While genetically identical to savannah elephants, desert elephants are uniquely adapted to life in regions that receive 100mm or less annual rainfall  They are a gravely endangered group that deserves to be fiercely protected by the Namibian government, rather than sacrificed  for a few votes.