A Guide to Identifying Desert Adapted Elephants in Namibia

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Posted by WorkingAbroad Projects on Wednesday, 26th March 2014

Elephant patrols are routinely carried out on our Desert Elephants Volunteer Project in Namibia. The purpose of these patrols is not only to check the elephant’s movements but also to see which farms/ water installations they regularly visit. This is especially important as there are often conflicts between human development and elephants in Namibia. By monitoring the elephants use of water points we can minimise the damage elephants cause by aiding farmers build protective walls around their property. Patrols are also used to monitor the population size of the elephants and record any births, deaths or conflicts between them.

The patrols allow those involved to get to know each individual elephant’s character and personality. This can be useful in managing the population effectively. Therefore time is spent observing the elephant’s behaviour, communication and interactions with each other, both within their herd and with other herds.

Identifying individual elephants can be difficult so pictures are taken of the individual elephants and added to a database. These will show the distinguishing features of each elephant for example their tusks, ears and tails, thus aiding the staff observing them. Below are some sets of identification photos for the Matriarchs from two different herds. To find out more about volunteering on this project, please click here.

Ears & Tusks

This is Mama Afrika from the herd “Mama Afrika” or “UM”. She has an obvious tear in her right ear and like the rest of her herd; her tusks are straight and pointing downwards:

This is Desert Elephant Mama Afrika from the herd “Mama Afrika”

This is Bellatrix from the herd G6. She has a smooth unbroken right ear and her tusks are curved and pointing upwards. Also the same as the rest of her herd:

Elephant Matriarch right ear


Elephants have different hair distribution on their tails so tails can also be used as an identification tool for observers.

This is Mama Afrikas tail. She has a lot of hair on one side but only a few strands of hair on the other:

Mama Afrikas Elephant tail

Compared to Mama Afrikas tail, Bellatrix has little to no hair on her tail. It also appears to be shorter than an average tail:

Matriarch elephant tail id

Male vs. Female Identification

Male and female elephants can be distinguished using two features; their size and their head shape. Male elephants can weigh up to 6 tons whereas females weigh just over 3 tons. The pictures below demonstrate the difference in head shape.

Tamla female desert elephant                                  Voortrekker male elephant


This is Tamla, a sub adult female. Her skull is much more angled than males.


This is Voortrekker, a breeding bull. His skull has a more rounded shape due to the muscle needed to hold up the heavier male skull. 


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