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Elephants walking up the dry riverbed of the Huab river in Namibia

Environment & Wildlife, From the Field

Struggles for Elephants and Communities in the Namibian Desert due to Covid-19

July 15th 2020

Tagged: Covid-19, Desert, Elephant, Namibia

Namibia, a country three times the size of the UK, is home to just 2.5 million people and the desert elephant. Perhaps due to its scattered population, the country has seen just 25 cases of Covid-19 – although more likely, due to the immediate closure of its borders on March 14th. While Namibia is effectively combating the health crisis, this firm stance brought with it new and demanding challenges for communities and organisations left isolated within it, many of whom struggle to get by at the best of times.

The Desert Elephants Volunteer Project is situated in the north-western region of the Namib Desert, an area known as ‘Damaraland’, in Namibia. Damaraland is an interesting case in a world increasingly seeing the eradication of natural habitats and reduction of wildlife; its wild elephant populations are growing dramatically. In 20 years, their numbers have climbed from as few as 52, to a current estimate of 150-200 elephants.

As their territory expands into areas previously only settled by subsistence farmers, people and elephants are brought into conflict for the most fundamental resource of all – water. Elephants have damaged windmills, dams, reservoirs, pumps and wells in the area, threatening both themselves and the local community. The project was established to promote the peaceful cohabitation of farmers and elephants, by building protective walls around water pumps to prevent their destruction, and providing access for the animals elsewhere. We reached out to the team to get a better understanding of how the pandemic has affected their invaluable conservation work.

Volunteers in truck with elephant in background in NamibiaVolunteer in Namibia | Volunteer with Elephants | Working Abroad

“It is very tough,” said Rachel, Managing Director; “we have had to ask volunteers for money. If we didn’t have them, we would have been finished.” In more stable times, volunteers play crucial roles in the project, working with farmers to build walls around water sources, and monitoring elephant movements on week-long patrols. “I expect we have a tough year ahead.”

The organisation has been able to continue working due to an emergency fundraising drive at the beginning of lockdown.“Due to funding received from donors, we were able to send a team out into the field to continue tracking the elephants and ensuring their well-being,” said Sabine, Marketing and Business Operator.

“Our Field Manager was out in the bush for four weeks tracking the various herds, connecting with elephant guards, and supporting communities with any elephant-related emergencies.”

Without volunteers on the ground, however, the team have had to adapt to survive. They are now conducting much of their educational work remotely; sharing safety tips over the radio so that local people can feel more comfortable living around the elephants, and providing training materials online – for those with internet access – who want to learn more about them. As lockdown rules have begun to relax, but schools remain closed, the education team has gone above and beyond – hosting conservation classes for village children, in groups of no more than 10. “This is to provide the kids with some education; engage with them, and also empower them to live with elephants and other wildlife.”

Amazingly, the project has been able to install solar-powered water pumps in two villages since the coronavirus outbreak; thanks in no small part to the Namibian government, who granted them an essential license to continue their indispensable work. These gave two very poor communities access to water, without the need to pay for a diesel operated one.

All local villages have been hit hard by the lack of tourists during lockdown. Usually they support themselves by holding craft markets, for visitors to purchase goods. The team has stepped up yet again to support their neighbours; “we managed to raise funds for food drops to support the neighbouring villages that were slowly running out of funds,” said Sabine. “We provided food drops to 300 villages.”

The project has proven just what a huge difference donations can make to a non-profit organisation in a crisis. And, although volunteers cannot be with them to help in person, they are still the backbone of the project; former volunteers made up the majority of donations in response to the emergency fundraising drive. What the team has achieved under such trying circumstances is truly phenomenal – but without ongoing support, they cannot continue indefinitely.

“I think we are okay until around September, […] We still have loads of work to do – it’s just a question of doing it without a budget for the walls and patrols.”

Written by WorkingAbroad blogger, Ellie Hackness

To make a donation to any of our project partners, please click here to donate under PayPal – and remember to write in your reference which project you would like the donation to be given to. It should be the project name so e.g. Desert Elephant, Namibia. Or donate directly to the project here

If you are able to join the project as a volunteer later this year or in 2021, then even better! The volunteer project runs throughout the year, including for families, and we have made volunteer dates available all the way till August 2021. You can find more info via the project page and if you are ready to join already, you can fill in the online application form by clicking on APPLY NOW. 

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