Two years ago last month, legendary Namibian desert elephant Voortrekker, pioneer of the Damaraland desert elephant population was shot. He was killed as a trophy, under the guise of being a problem animal. Another casualty of that day was man’s inability to associate Voortrekker with sustainable tourism value, community benefit, ecological integrity or a sense of wonder. Instead he was killed for short term greed.
Some friends have asked me to re-post an article that I wrote a few days before the incident. Unfortunately it turned out to be prophetic. Here it is .....
Amidst an iconic and ever-changing desert landscape, legendary Namibian elephant bull Voortrekker has a story to tell. It goes something like this.
During the turbulent war years of southern Africa that preceded Namibian independence, the desert elephant population was virtually decimated. Some found refuge from the poacher’s guns deep within the remote and desolate gorges of Kaokoveld in the north. As a result, the Ugab and Huab River systems, the southernmost ephemeral waterways of Damaraland, were devoid of elephants for well over a decade.
Voortrekker, one of the bulls to trek north during the conflict years, returned home in the early 2000’s, commencing a relay of south-bound expeditions, penetrating deeper and deeper into the dry and uncertain landscape before commencing with an epic traverse through to the relative bounty of the Ugab River. It was a marathon across arid plains and ancient craters that would ultimately redefine what we know of elephant endurance, intuition and behaviour. Just how he navigated, or knew where to find water, is anyone’s guess.
But his legacy does not end there.
For over two successive summer seasons he returned north, returning each time to the Ugab with a small family unit in tow. An elephant patriarch. These elephants are still resident in the region and have formed the nucleus of three distinct breeding herds, making the Ugab/Huab Rivers perhaps the most viable desert elephant habitats in the world. Voortrekker continues as the Godfather, a true legend of the Ugab. His ancestral knowledge has been passed down to a new generation of desert dwellers. What a legacy!
For me, all of this addresses one of the most crucial fallacies of elephant conservation, trophy hunting, and the notion of sustainable consumption: that older bulls have no value to an elephant community and can be hunted under the banner of ecological benefit.
This is a fundamental calamity.
If Voortrekker’s right of way is conserved, then so too will a vast landscape of conservation, employment, education, financial viability , hope and possibility.
ELEGEND. He is actually showing us the way if we take a moment to realise it.
And is precisely why Voortrekker’s story needs to be told to a wider audience. I invite you to share widely. Elephant, generally, are considered as a keystone of an ecological circuit, but THIS elephant could be considered as a keystone of elephant consciousness.
READ MORE >>>>. https://www.alanmcsmith.com/blog/june-13th-20214530153
With the pace of modern society and the availability of information and stimulation around us, we allow ourselves to be swamped by social media triggers. We may mistake this instant availability of information for comfort or solace, or perhaps efficiency. Necessary data in order to keep pace with our society and up with the Jones's. We invariable then live either in the past (memory), or the future (imagination) and we bypass the opportunity for a sense of stillness which exists in appreciating the moment.
I believe that the greatest desire that drives or motivates a human being, and particularly within challenging times, is the desire for stillness. To be peaceful in the moment.
To create some distance between what we think, and what we think what we should think of.
This is what nature does, it can create restorative moments to sink down within. Stillness is not about what has happened in our past, or what could happen in the future. It's in the moment.
Doesn't our world need more of this?
After many long hours of training courses, interpretation safaris and motivational talks in support of elephant conservation, it’s all about the share ... to platform a higher degree of awareness.Not only for the sake of elephant conservation, but for the sake of the degradation of the human spirit that occurs without the influence of wilderness.
Empathetic encounters with wild elephant like this are incredibly rewarding. And therefore, humbling. The feed the source of commitment and empathy to all nature, the folk around us and our environment. This in turn inspires conservation ambassadors.
Covid and deep tensions in the world are forcing us to adapt in unprecedented ways. The compounded stress of Covid and global tensions are forcing us to adapt without tools or references, in unprecedented conditions. The very core of who we are and what motivates us is being questioned. Most of our creature comforts; those of finance, security, comfort, convenience are being compromised and threatened in various degrees. For me, this is another validation of what I call the human animal's greatest illusion: we have mistaken comfort for quality of life. There can surely be no greater urgency to relook how we are living with nature than the present hour.
The natural world has its own will, its own direction and force, one that no man despite all the technology, science, money and intellect in the world can stop. Mankind's disrespect of this fundamental law has led to the present day … I hear of so many people referring to ‘how to save the planet’ which I consider another great illusion; the planet does not need saving, it is us who does. What requires conserving is our unity of thought, of mass action based on the sanctity of common sense But it is now time to be this leadership, one that can only come from people who understand the value and implications of living respectfully with nature. That everything is inter-connected, how goes it with nature, goes it with us.
One from the archives, so apologies for the low quality photo. But it's an amusing story. Some time ago I had an idea to install a cooking pot on the engine block of my trusty 2F Toyota landcruiser; I had never heard of the idea before so it made a whole heap of sense at the time and be as original as possible. In those days we referred to our walking trails as 'MouldBreakers" so the novel idea certainly had merit. Enter one long and convoluted discussion with old friend Beano later, and the design was done. Presto. An airtight pressure pot was mounted on the hot water line from the engine block to the radiator, so hot water was diverted into the pot on its way to the radiator to get cooled.
The more we went on safari, the more skilled we got at hauling out an assortment of hot snacks for sundowners or coffee breaks. In fact, I could work out a pre-dinner snack of pre-cooked chicken and veg ... it would take a drive to the airport to collect the clients, a return to the camp, and half way through a game drive to be ready to serve!
Lots of fun in those days. I doubt if modern scifi game viewers (or their warranties) would handle this. Rolling back the years.
The human animal is the most advanced and intelligent species ever known. But we have been brought to our knees by a virus, which technically is not even a living organism. Why? Sentient interactions with elephant can provide us with answers.
PART 1: THE TROPHY HUNTING ANGLE
The pioneer of the desert elephant population of Namibia, was shot on June 25th 2019 in Damaraland. He was killed as a trophy, under the guise of being a problem animal. Voortrekker was never known to be destructive to property or farmlands, and was in fact revered by the communities within his home range. He was the most viable breeding elephant bull in the country.
In addressing the emotional rhetoric on social media, let’s attempt to unpack the various scenarios around Voortrekker’s death.
In hunting terms, old males past their prime are recognised as trophies. Weed out the weak to allow young bucks opportunity to ascend the genetic ladders. This logic is undeniably flawed and is irrelevant in elephant societies.
Furthermore, the naive model of a sustainable, fair chase, sport hunt, wherein all proceeds benefit the bigger picture did not exist. Trophy hunting operates on the premise that the trophy is worth more dead than alive, which in the case of Voortrekker is a calamitous comparison. Sure the community made some short term cash. And certainly the PH. But ultimately at what cost?
Therefore there was no trophy value in killing Voortrekker.
PART 2 : NEGATIVE IMPACT OF TOURISM BOYCOTTS
In the wake of the incomprehensible hunt there has been precious few inklings of hope emerging from the desert. Everyone, quite rightly, is still in a state of outrage.
It’s clear that government and conservation policies need to change, which is essentially where public pressure should be focussed. However, amidst the storm, it is worth commending and supporting the pro-elephant conservancies at ground zero (Soris Sorris, Tsiseb and Otjimboyo), who in understanding the value of elephant conservation, appealed to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to protect Voortrekker.
This is another example of the great elephant’s legacy. He forged a historical partnership with these communities.
Due to cancelled bookings, the Namibian tourism industry has lost millions of N$ in the few days since Voortrekker’s death. This reaction is inevitable. But there are many reputable eco-tourism operations and community conservancies who will get caught in the fall out. They depend on tourism dollars, and are pro-conservation because of them. Please consider this should you be considering cancelling your safari. Feel free to make contact for advice.
PART 3: UNIQUE DESERT ADAPTED ELEPHANTS
There are far fewer than 200 desert adapted elephants remaining in Namibia. These elephant typically frequent the most arid valleys and remote conditions, seldom if ever, venturing out toward the eastern plains. Their habits and behaviour are far more specific than elephants from the east and elsewhere in the country, and there is some speculation within scientific communities about the merits of a sub-species. There is no doubt that they do require special attention, and cannot be lumped with the inland herds or those of Khaudom, Etosha or Caprivi. Unfortunately, generalised census figures do not reflect this.
Voortrekker was the pathfinder for an isolated population on the Ugab River, southern Damaraland, consisting of 25 animals. He was one of only two breeding bulls remaining. This group of elephants have not successfully reared a calf for 5 years due to droughts and conflict related stress. Desert adapted elephant society, like their environment, is extreme, delicate and complex, and the futures of the herds here without Voortrekker’s patriarchal presence, and guidance, is more of a concern than ever.
Extremely docile, Voortrekker was never known to be aggressive to people, and was much respected by many local people from the pro-elephant conservancies within his home range. He seemed to intuitively know how to co-exist with the communities of the desert as he did with the landscape itself. His and the Ugab herd’s known range limit was a long way from the Omatjete community, where the alleged damage and threat to human life incident occurred. This would suggest that he was not even there, let alone responsible for any damage or threatening behaviour.
Yet a bounty was sanctioned on Voortrekker’s head, based on being a problem animal.
PART 4: THE FINANCIAL MYTH
The financial success of the Namibian conservancy models depends on viable and sustainable eco-tourism. Between the Brandberg and the Huab River, an area within Voortrekker’s home range, the majority of people are directly employed, directly benefit or indirectly benefit from eco-tourism. The conservancies here, largely because of Voortrekker’s influence, were increasingly pro-elephant and supported the concept of co-existing with the herds.
Namibia is a specialised wildlife destination, with an alternative kind of attraction than say in Botswana or South Africa. While the desert landscape is mesmerising, elephants are the focus, and a marquee elephant such as Voortrekker is absolutely pivotal in this. In short, the local communities depend on tourism; tourism depends on elephants; and the elephants, ecologically and socially, depended on Voortrekker.
A paltry sum of N$120k changed hands for Voortrekker’s bounty. Based on this, it’s estimated that the impoverished and drought stricken Omatjete community, desperate for government assistance, profited by a handful of dollars each. How is this remotely logical to justify the hunt? What actually did happen on the ground (and didn’t), and the chain of corruption behind it, is for another chapter. Elephant based eco-tourism in the area, of which Voortrekker was the figurehead, is a sustainable long term revenue stream worth millions of N$ per annum.
Known all around the world as an iconic Namibian treasure, the bottom line is that he (as are all other desert elephants for that matter) was worth more alive than dead. It surely, unequivocally, cannot possibly be argued otherwise.
Therefore there was no financial logic in killing Voortrekker.
PART 5: RELEVANCE OF ANTHROPOMORPHISM
A conservative and outdated attitude toward elephant conservation and problem solving is one down the barrel of a gun. That Voortrekker had to pay his way in order to be part of the landscape. There are folks who claim that elephants are not capable of sentient understanding, and that killing Voortrekker leaves no moral or ethical aftertaste.
If you respectfully like to discover why Voortrekker’s sanction was wrong, then let’s make contact. If you are an elephant hunter, or endorse elephant hunting, then I invite you to track and stalk wild elephant with me; I can assure you of the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin, but the elephant will stay alive.
Then you can decide for yourself if elephant do not merit anthropomorphic understandings.
If it does not transform you then so be it. But, if it does, then the onus is on you to dedicate the rest of your life advocating elephant conservation in memory of Voortrekker.
Therefore the rhetoric around Voortrekker’s death, questioning and challenging our belief systems and morals toward our natural world, is relevant