The African elephant is the largest mammal on land and when watching them browse, play, interacting and moving through the bushveld, one really knows you are on safari and are privileged to observe them in their environment.
There is certainly nothing else so wonderful than watching elephants! Growing up in Botswana, I loved how with elephants something is always happening. Youngsters playing and testing their cousins’ strengths and weaknesses, seeing how much trouble they can get away with; young males, almost ready to leave the herds but who still want to be near their mothers, whose attention is now focused on new babies.
During the heat of the day the herds gather tightly around a shady tree to rest whilst the young lie on the ground at their feet; the gentle stomach rumblings as they rest is a delightful sound.
Best of all, elephants playing in the Chobe River is the most magical sight, and sometimes your open game drive vehicle just happens to get splashed on by elephants covering themselves in mud! These are all mesmerising and it’s these encounters that you remember about being on safari.
One animal that dominates the northern half of Botswana is the elephant. Botswana now reportedly has a third of the entire world’s population of African elephants (Loxodonta africana), 130,000 individuals in the country, making it a wonderful place to visit on safari if you would like a good chance of seeing this magnificent species.
Where in Botswana is best to see elephant?
The population census of elephants in Botswana has certainly shown a good population over the past 20 years, whilst in some African countries numbers are declining drastically. Chobe National Park has the most elephant in all of Botswana, a staggering 70,000 individuals, with truly impressive herds gathering during both the wet and dry seasons.
Named after the Chobe River on its northern boundary, the Park is home to an exciting variety of other large mammals too, and the highest count of bird species in the country.
Chobe comprises four main areas: the Chobe river frontage in the north, the central pans around Nogatsaa, the Linyanti wetlands fringes and the Savuti region that includes the Mababe Depression.
The Chobe River Front covers the stretch of river long the Namibian border and is a rich riverine forest with a marginal floodplain. This northern section is an area renowned for its elephant and buffalo during the dry season and is a birder's paradise year round. There are some fantastic lodges and camps here too.
Bordering Chobe, the Moremi Game Reserve covers about a third of the Okavango Delta and therefore has a variety of ecosystems for different wildlife to enjoy. As the Reserve covers much of the eastern side of the Okavango Delta, about 30% of the reserve is mainland, whilst the permanent waters are a sanctuary for elephant, hippo, sitatunga and red lechwe as well as other game and wonderful birdlife.
There are no fences around the reserve, except for the southern part which keeps cattle out of the reserve and buffalo inside - and this allows the elephant herds to freely move across all the concessions and reserves.
A wonderful way to see elephant here is on foot, with an expert guide and tracker, allowing you to get much closer to the herd for a fantastic up-close experience.
Also bordering Chobe is Linyanti, situated in the north-western corner of Botswana. Linyanti is dominated by almost 900 sq. km of the secluded Linyanti Swamp - an area that is further expanded by the private reserves. This area’s relative inaccessibility and remoteness makes it a wonderful place to visit.
Who are Elephants Without Borders?
Elephants Without Borders (EWB) is an NGO operating in Botswana who have been tracking elephants for several years. They carry out extensive research, working alongside communities and with the Botswana Wildlife Department. Tracking allows them to gather information about habitat needs, activities, how they spread and disperse and social organization.
Why are elephant numbers and movements important?
Population counts done over the years have been difficult to do in many countries due to conflict and logistics, but an in depth count and research is vital with regards to finding out impacts on local communities and tourism and conservation issues. Threats such as habitat loss, poaching and encroachment of human habitation has all had a significant influence on African wildlife, including elephants.
Elephants are herbivores and consume a vast amount of vegetation per day, and when droughts occur and water is in short supply movements and migration of animals are even more pronounced across the borders and to better water sources.
Research shows that elephants prefer to use historical corridors, pathways and routes between waterholes and forests, where the best food and water is to be found. Large herds are led by a matriarch who has many years of experience and knowledge of these routes.
Elephants Without Borders have worked with many local areas across Africa to help to open up these corridors for elephants to move, and now vast swathes of northern Botswana around Chobe and the neighbouring national parks and private reserves are unfenced.
How has elephant population changed in Africa?
In Botswana numbers of elephant have done very well over the past 20 years. The latest survey by EWB has indicated that the elephant population in Botswana and Zambia’s South Luangwa is definitely stable and maybe even increasing. Populations in northern Tanzania, across Kenya and Kafue are definitely increasing.
Other places however, such as huge areas of Tanzania, Mozambique and northern Zimbabwe have seen dramatic drops in numbers. In some countries in Africa, it is estimated that elephants may be lost entirely from those areas within just 9 years, due primarily to poaching.
Why the numbers increase in certain areas seems to be down to either the stability and safety of a region, or conversely because their movements are being restricted due to human habitation and encroachment, so herds cannot move out of the area.
Numbers increasing in a particular area is also found when there is an increase in poaching somewhere else and elephants move to safer areas and reserves, such as those found in Botswana. Re- colonisation also occurs when some areas are ‘made safe’ again, for example in southern Angola which has seen a recent increase in numbers of elephants.
Moremi walking safari image courtesy of Khwai Tented Camp