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
Its moonrise in the Sahara and I’m doing my best to untangle my emotions. Behind me is a towering turreted sandstone ridge, gloriously sculptured by wind and time. Perhaps by the hand of God himself.
The Ennedi Natural and Cultural Reserve is located in NE Chad deep into the expanses of the Sahara, and its been a mission to get here. 40 000 kms2 of endless jaw-dropping landscapes are dominated by outcrops and arches that are crazy-beautifully-odd-shaped. Masterpieces of natural art.
Everything about this place suggests that we shouldn’t be here; the remoteness is arresting, the logistics are daunting and the conditions unknown. Even the grass has attitude … known as ‘crum-crum’ that happily deposits stinging barbs on you as you walk by, almost in protest of being here.
We are camping in a secluded wadi (dry riverbed) to avoid the merciless crum-crum and the sand is soft and pink. This is a wild spot. The vast plains and dunes support a surprising amount of extreme desert adapted animal and birdlife; only the wily survive here. Everything seems to say: “you may enter on my conditions, and my conditions only.” There are no half measures. No free lunches or favours. Yet there is a primeval fascination here, an understanding of peace and belonging, which despite the ancient foreboding landscape, makes all the sense in the world. The landscape here is sublime, other-worldly. The nights are deafeningly quiet. Tiny Fennec foxes canter over the dunes in search of their staple meal, the spring heeled desert jerboa, a curios rodent resembling a mix of hamster, springhare and cricket. We would also find Ruppels fox, one of Africa’s rarest and secretive carnivores. But the desert hedgehog did it for me... I needed to sit down after that one to let it soak in all over again. This delicate, sensitive and precious ecosystem is under the competent care of The Africa Parks network.
Recognized by some as a place to escape, and by others as a place to discover. Perhaps the same thing? Regardless of your take of remote, desolate but beautifully essential wildlands they represent one thing: a primeval sense of appreciation and wonder for nature and its Creator.
There needs to be a desert within us all.
DEDICATED TO ALL AT ZAKOUMA WHO HAVE DEDICATED THEIR LIVES TO CONSERVATION THERE.
FOR SOME IT HAS BEEN THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE.
I am a Chadian elephant from Zakouma and this is my story. Its like no other.
When I was born, our frontier extended beyond where the earth and sky met. There were many of us, and many other animals too. I can recall when the big rivers ran with clear water, but that was a long time ago now. At the end of the last century there were vast herds of my kind here. But by the end of the first decade of the next, there were hardly any of us left.
I am one of them.
The others had all been shot out by mounted ivory poachers from Sudan. It was lawless back then, not like it is now. These horsemen were terrifying and rounded us up like cows, and killed as many as was humanly possible. Their lust for ivory drove them insane and I personally witnessed the massacres of herds of elephant, up to 60 at a time, in one place. Males, females and young ones were all killed for their white gold. I had heard of hunters and their ivory quests from my parents in the past, and was always wary of people in the field. But the extent of this frenzy was never experienced before by any of us here.
At times I return to the killing fields to pay my respects; it was not long after the day that I first went back. The bodies of my friends and relatives lay in clusters, some in a locked embrace, others in their final moments of torture and agony. Lion and hyena rested under the full moon, too bloated from their free meals to move, and too lazy to care about one another. I could recognise who the carcasses were by feeling their heads, ears, trunks, jawlines, feet, tails and skin as there was no longer any ivory in place to caress. It had all been taken. Hacked out by axes and machetes. I could not stay long. It was on that day, looking at the hollowed out skulls and grotesquely disfigured bodies that I truly realised how cursed I was to carry mine. We knew then, what the horsemen came to take, and why they would always come back.
I recall a young one in the aftermath of the killings. Somehow he had become separated from his family. Others calves who were not killed outright, and reluctant to leave the bodies of their dead and dying mothers, were bludgeoned to death in order to save bullets. They had a few centimetres of precious ivory to cash in. But not him; although he knew precisely what was happening he was spared seeing his family murdered, but not spared the days of torment afterwards because of it. He wandered alone into the bush and once emotionally spent, collapsed onto the ground. I saw his tiny body convulsing in pain, trauma, panic, rage and anguish. He sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I could not stay there so left him in the riverbed where he was lying. It was on the third night, I believe, that the lions took him. I can assure you that his spirit was long gone by then.
There are those of you who believe that this kind of emotional cognisance is reserved for your kind only. Let me encourage you to think again. It happens all around you if you only take the time to notice.From then on I preferred to hide in the forests, keeping my tusks out of sight when people were about. For a long time I only ventured out into the floodplains and drank at night. I’m not alone in this and there are others who did, and still do, the same.
For some time my rumbles were unanswered, and the bush, even for us, was silent for a while. The energy fields were dead too. I could walk for days before feeling another elephant, something that had never happened to me before. We were all silent then it seems, trying to lose ourselves in the frontier, as far away from the carnage and uncertainty as possible.
Slowly, mercifully, time passed.
You could say that I am one of the lucky ones. I have three bullets lodged in my shoulder. Reminders. I carry this other pain too, till today.
I have seen a lot of change here since that chapter, since the new people came.
They are not like any others; in fact in defence of our frontier, even some of their herd have been killed, I suspect, by the ferocious horsemen. I often wonder if those effected with the loss of their loved ones felt and feel anything like I did and do. Sometimes I sense it, as the energy is strong. Perhaps then, its true to say that we have helped one another to heal. If so, and by the ancient order of things, this means our destinies are intertwined.
How is it that some can create so much savagery for others? Many corrupt politicians, rogue militias and warlords have financed their campaigns and vendettas of terror directly though the illegal sales of ivory contraband. My white gold, as a resource to be plundered, is so valuable that it has a long and miserable history of both foreign and local exploitation. This exploitation has caused untold violence, murder and displacement. From remote badlands, ivory caches are smuggled out of my continent in diplomatic cargos, finding their way to carver’s sweatshops where the once beautiful tusks are hideously transformed into bizarre and distastefully shaped trinkets, ornaments and artefacts. Some even ends up as religious effigies with selfishly perpetuated myths of miraculous healing powers. Some on the streets of modern western society amongst people like you, where you would think it is socially, legally, morally, ethically, logically, emotionally and spiritually repulsive for any sane educated person to have in his or her possession. How is it possible for them to say I didn’t know? There is nothing more destructive in this world than good people who do nothing, and the more you turn a blind eye to the reality the more culpable you become; just as an ignorant and disillusional user flaunting ivory trinkets at decadent dinner parties, or the fat wealthy carver who supplies him, or as the blinkered religious zealot is.
But all of this should not be for my kind to know, its for yours. For yours is the only one who can do something about it. You may need to face some unpleasant realities in your journey into understanding how deep the dark toxic root of the ivory demand is buried in the soil of Africa. And how it influences not only us, but your kind. Governments, countries, and even our great continent itself. There is a complex war being fought and many new people who care deeply about this are fighting for my kind, and perhaps, ultimately for their own redemption. There is a quiet but simmering stillness of late.
But for how long. The ivory consumer is a relentless enemy.
I am old now, and my shoulder gives me trouble. I struggle to walk the distances to our herds, but still feel compelled to do so. It is my duty after all to be there with them, to offer my council. Although these days I prefer my own company, our families choose to band together in large gatherings. It’s safer that way. In case the horsemen return. We also chose not to bring young into the world for some time, as we did not want them to be subjected to what I saw.
This has slowly changed since the new people came.
Sometimes I meet with old friends, those who share the same memories and nightmares of those days as I. And to discuss this story amongst ourselves. They are all pathfinders, just like you and I. In the dry season, walks to water are far and tiring, but there is a place nearby the big river that occasionally runs water from the hands of new people. I sometimes go there. But it took a long time to cross back over and do it. On hot days, the sweet, clean and cool water is my lifeblood. But far more importantly, for the first time in a long while a far greater thirst, the thirst for hope, is being quenched.
I sense it now since the new people came. The wise grandmothers from the families speak of this too. A stillness amongst the new people and their activities. But it will take far longer for them to drink this water, if that day ever comes.
Sometimes, while drinking, I let the new people touch me.
I can tell why they do it; some for their own selfish fulfilment, some for a dare, some out of curiosity and some out of true compassion. I can tell which one is which by the resting and warmth of their hands on my tusk or skin. There are some people whom I genuinely attach to, some others I merely tolerate. For some I may not even offer this. Yet I am still frightened of the way a tall man wearing a coloured turban walks, or of the energy of another’s being, or of another talking in the tongue of the ferocious horsemen, and prefer to turn away when he is present at the water. Regardless of how thirsty I am.
I chose to cross back over at this place, but only on my terms.
I can sense stillness. I can sense peace.
And after what seemed an eternity, hope is here. But I will never forget.
If its possible to make Chad more expansive than it is, then fly across it in a Cessna 182. With a doum palm oasis, the sandy desert base of Fada is like something from an Indiana Jones set. There’s a vast emptiness down there until we touch down at Abeche, our refuelling post. Its a welcome leg stretch if nothing else.
Destination green Zakouma.
There is no guiding qualification structure in Chad so my mission is to create one. Its another privilege to be asked to design course and assessment content by African Parks at Zakouma, on behalf of the Tinga Camp, Camp Nomade and the community guides. I don't believe it’s been formally done before.
There is a group of 14 guys from Islamic communities on board, and only two speak any English. Another boundary to navigate. So, relying on my good friend Steve Gao from Camp Nomade as a translator and advisor. What have I discovered so far? That the warmth, humility, passion and enthusiasm of these people makes them all super-qualified. Guiding standards in the industry is a huge topic, but I believe you just can’t top good old fashioned human being-ness as a foundation.
To think that this country was once considered as the “dark heart of Africa.”
It’s been me who’s been doing all the learning.
Chad? What's out there? Endless brutal desert, camels and wild nomadic people right? Only crazy travellers go there. So I went. And then there is Zakouma; a most unexpected and spectacular wildlife bonanza!
The safari season at Zakouma in Chad is between December and end April; the dry conditions and low water levels in the floodplains and rivers are like magnets for multitudes of game and birds. However, every so often a unique opportunity arises, one too good to turn down.
I was invited by African Parks to spend 7 weeks at Zakouma in the middle of the wet season during October and November. Conditions in the reserve at this time are daunting as all of the roads are submerged and getting around is almost impossible. The Salamat River and tributaries are navigable by boat or canoe, and only some of the floodplain systems are accessible by canoe and muddy amphibious walks. Zakouma, outside the safari calendar, is a secretive and mysterious place that very few explorer guides access. No-one could answer a multitude of questions … What of the road conditions? How much water is there? Where do the animals move? What new birds are there? How viable is it to run safaris at this time of year? And perhaps the most intriguing of all: what is like to spend some good old quality time on the ground during the secret season?
The mould-breaking chance to explore all of this is certainly not lost on me, and it has been a huge privilege. I believe it is fundamentally important to understand the heartbeat and culture of a reserve; its moods, its seasons, it rhythms, its challenges. To discover the area and its wildlife from vantage points not normally possible. To spend time with people on the ground and understand their lives and livelihoods. Perhaps only then, as a safari guide, may it possible to say that you know a place.
My mission at Zakouma was twofold.
Firstly, to explore the possibility of a wet season safari product and its limitations. To scout for suitable fly-camp locations that are accessible by boat or canoe, and what the walking conditions are like. For certain, the roads here in the wet are unnavigable as most of the terrain is a sea of swamp and mud. To figure out how to track the great Zakouma elephant herd of 300 on foot for example. Game viewing is challenging but we located elephant, Central African savannah buffalo, lion, Defassa waterbuck, Buffon's kob and herds of Kordofan giraffe. Birdlife is as spectacular as ever with amongst others black crowned crane, northern carmine bee-eaters, stone partridge and Egyptian plover on the list. Also on the radar is to work out the possibility of multi-day canoe expeditions down the hippo-less waters Salamat River, which is absolutely stunning. For me, Zakouma under the most optimal conditions, is considered as a safari beyond the frontier. But the wet season is even further from the edge. Logistically doable, but certainly challenging due to the waterlogged ground, re-supply limitations, the possibility of rain, and the guarantee of industrial amounts of mosquitos. It's an intrepid explorer’s dream, so count me in!
Secondly, I am designing and leading a guide training course on behalf of the Tinga Camp, Camp Nomade and the community guides. There is no guiding qualification structure in Chad so my mission is to create one. It's another privilege to be asked by African Parks at Zakouma, and it’s never been formally done before. There is a group of guys, almost all from Islamic communities on board, and only two speak any English. Another boundary to navigate. So, relying on my good friend, excellent lead Camp Nomade guide Steve Gao as a translator and advisor. What have I discovered so far? That the warmth, humility, passion and enthusiasm of these people makes them all super-qualified. Guiding standards in the industry is a huge topic, but I believe you just can’t top good old fashioned human being-ness as a foundation. To think that this country was once considered as the “dark heart of Africa.”
I am leading two privately guided dry-season safaris to Zakouma in April 2021 and limited space is available. If a trip beyond the frontier sounds appealing, please feel free to make contact for more information.
It’s all a bit wild for that.
Our expedition is/was to create a little more awareness about this, to create a blip on the extreme tourism radar at least. The more interest in visiting Ennedi (under the right circumstances that is ... my opinion is that its to premature to consider self-drive safaris) the more probability there may be of any community buy-in.
As an explorer-guide-conservationist, my dream is to share opportunities of support for reputable conservation initiatives. I may not be a scientist or politician, but I have an understanding of what it takes to develop protected areas. If you wish to consider an exploratory safari to Ennedi, or discover more about the African Parks work, let’s make contact.
The scenery, sense of place and specialised wildlife on offer is staggering. You’ll be hooked.
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.