Elephants are instantly recognised by their long trunks, tusks, and huge ears. They’re known not just for their commanding physical attributes, but also for their remarkable cognitive abilities. As the earth’s largest land animal, elephants are able to count, communicate complex messages, and have even been observed mourning (a behaviour previously thought to belong solely to humans).
Despite these outstanding qualities (or perhaps, precisely because of them), global populations of elephants have decreased significantly in the past 40 years. In Africa, elephant numbers have halved since 1979, while the range of Asian elephants has reduced by 85%.
Although poaching, climate change, and dangers posed by human settlements have all contributed to the decline in elephant numbers, it’s still possible to see them in their natural habitat. In this post, we take a look at the five best places to see elephants in the wild.
Situated around 350km from Nairobi, Samburu National Reserve sprawls across 165 square-km of grasslands, riverine forests, and mountains. It’s also home to Save The Elephants, an organisation aimed at tracking, researching, and protecting its wild elephants. One of the focuses of the group is to investigate ways to ensure the safe cohabitation of herds and people – this includes collaring the animals and using ‘geo-barriers’ to prevent them from entering farmland.
Whilst the chances to see elephants are high (according to Save The Elephants, there’s always a minimum of approximately 900 in the park), there are also other animals to observe. Lions, in particular, are prominent. A few years ago Saba-Douglas-Hamilton recorded a lioness that adopted 5 oryx calves and protected them from other prides and predators. She was named Kamunyak (‘blessed one’ in the local language) and rose to fame through the film Heart of a Lioness.
Also in Kenya, the Masai Mara has proved to be a success story for elephant conservation. As elsewhere on the African continent, ivory poachers had been decimating herds – in 2012 alone, as many as 139 animals were killed (around 12% of the area’s total population). Since then, a concerted effort by the Mara Elephant Project has resulted in a 72% increase in elephant numbers.
This rebound is the result both of smarter relationship-management between local communities and gamekeepers, as well as a swat-like team of rangers tracking down and catching poachers. The Mara’s elephant protection teams are even kitted out with thermal imaging cameras (previously used by the US army for nighttime raids) and drones – a formidable force.
The South-East Asian island of Borneo is home to the smallest subspecies of elephant, the Borneo pygmy elephant.
It was once thought that these pint-sized animals were the descendants of elephants released into the forest by the Sultan in the 18th century. Today, however, they’re widely regarded as a genetically separate species from the larger Asian elephant. At their tallest, they stand at 9ft, with longer tails and more rounded bellies.
With only 1,500 pygmy elephants existing in the wild, they’re an endangered species. Their numbers have been affected less by poaching than by environmental threats, as deforestation ravages their natural habitat.
It is, however, still possible to see them. The Kinabatangan River is a common spot to happen upon groups of the miniature elephants. Visitors may be able to catch a glimpse of them emerging from the riverside undergrowth to wallow in the slow-moving murky waters.
Once used for expansive ranches during the colonial era, Laikipia Plateau is now at the forefront of wildlife conservation in Kenya. The Laikipia Wildlife Foundation oversees the labyrinthine of conservancies that divide this 9,500 km stretch of land, which transitions from grassy plains bordering Mount Kenya to craggy escarpments in the north.
There are over 7,000 elephants spread out across the plateau, and they’re closely monitored by the Kenya Wildlife Services to ensure minimal conflict with local communities. Alongside setting up ‘wildlife corridors’ to allow animals to travel across inhabited areas, authorities keep track of notorious ‘fence-breakers’ – these are elephants known to regularly raid farmers’ crops.
Aside from elephants, there’s a wealth of other wildlife-viewing opportunities. To the south of the plateau, the Ol Pejeta sanctuary represents one of East Africa’s most important conservancies for black rhinos, and is the only place to see non-native chimpanzees in the country.
Chobe national park in Northern Botswana has the highest concentration of elephants anywhere in Africa. There are approximately 70,000 across the park’s vast 11,700 square kilometres, which covers a broad range of habitats.
The park’s main activity is undoubtedly game safaris – all of Africa’s ‘big 5’ can be found within its boundaries. Aside from the spectacular wildlife, visitors can also see rock art created by local bushmen. Although not as old as the art found at the nearby World Heritage Site of Tsodilo Hills, the red-ochre paintings in the Savuti area of the park still offer a valuable insight into local traditions and history.
Although wild elephant populations are under threat from various angles, it’s still possible to see them in their natural habitat. Whether it’s across the vast plains of Africa, or in the humid forests of India and Southeast Asia, seeing wild elephants is an experience you’ll never forget.
Governor’s Camp offers authentic safari experiences with a touch of luxury. As one of the few camps to be situated within the Masai Mara reserve, our Governor’s Camp is the ideal place to explore the best wildlife Kenya has to offer.
(Photo credits: Images 2 and 4 – William Fortescue)