Hope for Africa’s Dwindling Elephants and Five Top Places to See Them

25 Jan Hope for Africa’s Dwindling Elephants and Five Top Places to See Them

African elephants, Botswana. Photo by Richard Field. ©Natural Habitat Adventures

In Botswana’s Okavango Delta, we were bumping along a dirt track through the Moremi Game Reserve when we heard them first. A shrill trumpet blasted through the mopane forest. Seconds later, we saw them, bursting through the trees at a fast trot. Our Land Cruiser rolled to a halt and we watched, awestruck, as a phalanx of 40 or 50 elephants crashed through a shallow pond and trundled across the road directly in front of us. Taking up the rear was a small youngster, bleating furiously as he tried to keep up. At one point, a female slowed, looked back, and waited as the little guy caught up. We shortly caught up with the herd in an open clearing, where they stopped to tear branches down and dine on the leaves. A bit farther away, a big bull with giant tusks riveted our attention as we observed him: We were close enough to see inch-deep furrows in his leathery gray skin.

Those who follow the news know that sadly, elephants are in grim straits. One third of Africa’s elephants have been slaughtered in the just the past seven years. At the start of the 20th century, Africa had more than 10 million elephants. Now, just 350,000 savannah elephants are left. The devastating loss is almost entirely due to the lucrative ivory trade. The tusks of a single male elephant can weigh more than 250 pounds, with a pound of ivory fetching $1,500 on the black market. The greatest demand for ivory is in China, where carvings are a status symbol among the country’s burgeoning middle class.

Yet two recent developments are providing renewed hope for elephants. The first is a global movement to stanch the ivory trade, which has led to bans around the world, including China’s recent ban on domestic ivory sales. The second is the role tourists play in ensuring that elephants are more valuable alive than poached.

For those who care deeply about elephants — and the biodiversity of the habitats they maintain — there are still plenty of places in Africa where elephant numbers are strong and encounters are thrilling. A safari that includes any of these destinations is sure to promise memorable moments with Africa’s elephants, and help protect them as well:


1) Chobe River, Botswana

Home to the largest concentrations of elephants in Africa, as well as some of Africa’s biggest individual elephants, the Chobe River system offers unparalleled elephant viewing. About 70,000 elephants — nearly half of Botswana’s elephant population — live in Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. The country’s concerted conservation efforts, including the preservation of ancient migration routes free from fences and farms, have fostered some of Africa’s healthiest wildlife numbers, allowing animals to thrive in vast tracts of native habitat. During the dry season from June through October, elephants congregate at permanent water sources, with the Chobe River the most significant. The Savute and Linyanti regions that neighbor Chobe National Park also offer excellent elephant viewing, often in more secluded environs on private reserves.


2) Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

This less-visited park on Tanzania’s northern safari circuit is easily accessible from the popular safari destinations of Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. Tarangire contains 1,100 square miles of acacia woodlands and seasonally flooded grasslands studded with massive baobab trees, and is home to Tanzania’s largest elephant population. The park is known for its huge herds — several hundred strong — which throng the dry Tarangire riverbed to scratch for underground streams during the dry season. Viewing conditions are best at this time, roughly July through October. But elephants aren’t all Tarangire has to offer: The park harbors Tanzania’s greatest concentration of wildlife outside the Serengeti ecosystem, including oryx, lesser kudu, giraffe, reedbuck, dik-dik, leopard, buffalo, hyrax, python and 550 bird species. In the southeastern area of the park, seasonal swamps offer a chance to see wallowing elephants, swamp-dwelling lions and the rare African wild dog.


3) South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Roughly 10,000 elephants inhabit this 3,500 square-mile wildlife sanctuary. The Luangwa River, the life-giving artery of the region, is the most intact river system in Africa, and its oxbow lagoons draw intense concentrations of game that come from miles around in search of water. Huge elephant herds are among them, and a diversity of safari options offer opportunities to see them. In addition to classic 4×4 game drives, boat trips on the river lend close perspective not only on elephants, but also the Luangwa’s abundant hippo population. The famous “walking safari” was also pioneered in this park and is one of the best ways to experience the intimate details of the wild bush firsthand.


4) Amboseli National Park, Kenya

This national park, near the border of Tanzania, is one of best places to get close to elephants that are acclimated to humans. The elephant population here is relatively stable at 1,600 and is protected in part by the steady presence of Maasai herders and safari visitors. Sightings are frequent in this compact park: 55 elephant families live within Amboseli’s 150 square miles of dusty plains and marshlands. For photographers, Amboseli offers a coveted opportunity to get that iconic image of a “big tusker” — a mature male bull with tusks that touch the ground — against the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro. Water from the ancient volcano’s melting snows nourishes an impressive array of birds and mammals within the park, and visitors should keep their eyes peeled for plentiful feline predators such as lions, cheetahs and leopards. The Amboseli Trust for Elephants works diligently to protect the park’s remaining big tuskers. The trust also operates the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, which launched in 1972 and is the longest-running study of elephants in the wild.


5) Palmwag Concession & Etosha National Park, Namibia

For a less-common take on the African elephant, choose a safari in Namibia. Desert-dwelling elephants that live in Namibia are found nowhere else, except in some areas of Mali. While these desert elephants are not a separate species, they have adapted in unique ways to subsist in the arid environs of the Kunene region in northwest Namibia: Traveling in smaller groups than other African elephants, desert elephants have leaner bodies, longer legs and wider feet to navigate vast tracts of sand dunes and gravel plains. They can go days without water, relying on moisture obtained in sparse vegetation. The remote Palmwag Concession is a prime destination for observing desert elephants as well as endangered desert rhinos. Elsewhere in Namibia, see plentiful elephants in Etosha National Park, the country’s premier safari destination. Etosha is also home to cheetah, jackal, giraffe, kudu, oryx, black-faced impala and both black and white rhino. Though Namibia struggles with rampant wildlife crime, its elephant population has rebounded to more than 20,000, thanks in large part to innovative community conservation initiatives that have helped protect habitat.



To see elephants in Africa, choose a scheduled or private custom safari with one of these Adventure Collection members:

Bushtracks Expeditions


Micato Safaris

Natural Habitat Adventures

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Wendy Redal
Wendy Redal is a passionate writer and traveler with a focus on nature, wildlife, food and the environment. Her adventures have taken her to 60 countries and all 50 states, including face to face with gorillas in the Congo, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos, wine tasting in the Republic of Georgia, and trekking on horseback across Mongolia. A former tour director in Alaska, Canada, the western U.S. and New England, Wendy today enjoys crafting and guiding private group trips around the world, in addition to her marketing communications job in the adventure travel industry. She holds a PhD in media studies, an MA in journalism and a BA in history and previously worked with the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Wendy’s travel writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Budget Travel, Alaska magazine, World Wildlife, Gaiam Life and Good Nature Travel.
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