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This is a tale of courage, perseverance and tenacity. It is the story of Voortrekker, the famous Namib Desert Elephant bull. Voortrekker means “pioneer”, “the leader,” or “the one who shows the way”. Never has there been a name more apt than his.
In the 1980s there were no elephants left in the northwestern stretch of Namibia’s Kunene region due to over-hunting and rampant poaching. Then in 1989, Voortrekker visited the area, scouting around for a couple of weeks, patiently assessing every possible location, looking for danger, protection, hide-aways, watering holes and secret juicy food supplies.
A few weeks later Voortrekker returned, bringing his family to the Ugab River area. The small group of elephants must have been surprised at their leader’s actions, but trusted him implicitly, as his instincts always had turned out right before. The family unit, consisting of only about 20 individual elephants, had moved in. The Damaraland Desert was now their home and they had to survive.
Voortrekker taught them how to dig wells with their trunks and which shrubs contained the softest, moist foods. He showed them how to store water in a poach in their throats to use a couple of hours later, when they weren’t near the watering holes anymore. He led them straight to the fragrant Commiphora plants for a special treat.
The original group of 20 elephants split into three distinct family units, each favouring specific areas of the desert for themselves. Over the years they travelled many miles, their feet developing wider than those of other elephants. They became skinnier than normal elephants, and they started nursing their babies for twice as long to adapt to the harsh conditions.
In 2008, the Namibian government decided to issue permits to hunt these elephants. Six permits were issued, one for Voortrekker. An urgent appeal was launched with the help of Desert Elephant Conservation in order to stop the hunt, but five elephants still got killed.
A group of 10 dedicated women took up Voortrekker’s cause, and walked 140 kilometers (about 87 miles) through the desert in order to raise the funds needed to buy the bull elephant’s permit. His hunting tag was successfully purchased from the Government for a total of $12,000 USD, as a live trophy. The other five elephants had lost their lives, but Voortrekker was now a living legend.
Voortrekker was killed by a trophy hunter in June 2019 after being declared a ‘problem-animal’ by Namibian authorities. The surgical removal of Africa’s big-gene animals by trophy hunters continues, and Namibia’s desert-adapted elephants now rely on a small population of mature bulls after two were killed in 2016.
In their announcement on Facebook, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) said “the elephant bull concerned was put down after it was declared a problem. The animal alongside others have been destroying properties and infrastructure in the area of Omatjete.”
MET spokesperson Romeo Muyunda Lee advised that the price paid was N$120,000 (+/- US$ 8,500), but it is unclear at this stage whether this was the total price paid or the portion paid to communities.
Photo copyright and text: CJ Carrington, Vera Galot, African Geographic