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In certain areas of Southern Africa the elephant population is thriving. During my visits to Botswana and Zimbabwe, prolific numbers of elephants grazed in the protected plains of national parks. In Botswana’s Chobe National Park, over 50,000 elephants call this region home. They abandoned traditional migratory routes which used to take them through the war scarred areas of Angola and Namibia. Over the border in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park the evidence of a thriving elephant population is clear.


In Botswana these giant animals have a formidable ally: the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), set up in 1977 to address cross border incursion. The military takes responsibility for anti-poaching activity in Botswana [1]. Anecdotal evidence suggests they take a hard line with suspected ivory hunters. Man made watering holes have also helped elephants to thrive. Is it any coincidence that in some areas the elephant population has surged into unprecedented numbers? It would seem all is well in the land of giants.


Nothing is ever certain in these African plains. As the rainy season brings the gift of life with lush, green flora, so the dry season turns the land into a sun baked, barren zone. Staggering masses share limited resources during the long period of drought. Herds of elephants face malnutrition. The burden of numbers put a strain on the land and as a result on these majestic animals too. Watering holes discourage elephants from their traditional migration routes. In the past they travelled vast distances in search of fresh water. Now their sedentary lifestyle is increasing the burden on available vegetation for food. It would seem that this elephant paradise is far from having its happy ending.

A Matter of Life and Death

The drought leaves elephant herds desperate for food and water. Many die from the lack of nourishment. It would seem no human interference is effective enough to prevent nature from taking its course. The drought this year was longer than usual and anything too weak to stand its ground would fall. Many of the frail and young elephants become first victims to this unforgiving season. An elephant found wanting in the drought will become a prized meal for scavengers and predators alike. Many elephants appear either bloated with water, suffering from diarrhoea or are a weak mass of skin and bones.


It’s not only lions that weak elephants fall victim to. A more surprising example of elephant predation that I saw in Chobe involved a leopard. The elephant calf must have been succumbing to the overbearing drought to give this opportunistic hunter a chance to make its kill. According to my guide at Chobe adult leopards can kill elephant calves during the dry season. The dark of night shrouds such hunts in secrecy and gives the nocturnal predator an advantage over the poor sighted elephant.


In a desperate bid for survival, elephants venture beyond protected grounds into villages. Here, agricultural lands and grazing fields become the elephant’s new feeding ground, leaving behind a trail of damage to property. With the delay in the rains this year the plight of the elephant was even more acute. Hungry elephants ventured deep inside Livingstone to search for the fresh fruit of the mango tree. Could the well watered gardens of urban residents prove to be the paradise that elephants were looking for? Firecrackers greet the giants and break the silence of night. Local residents were not impressed with their unwelcome guests’ appetite. So the elephants’ search for food in the drought continued until the rains finally came.

Author: Reehana Shihab

Editor: Tim Plowden


  1. This was the situation at the time of travel. For further insights, read “The War on African Poaching: Is Militarization Doomed to Fail?” on the Yale Environment 360 blog.


African Elephants Drink At A Watering Hole, Botswana By Tim Plowden

African Elephants drink at a watering hole, Botswana.

African Elephant By Tim Plowden

Close-up of African Elephant, Botswana.

Vulture Waits Patiently To Feed On Elephant Carcass, Zimbabwe By Tim Plowden

Vulture waits patiently to feed on Arican Elephant carcass, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

African Lions Feasting On An Elephant, Zimbabwe By Tim Plowden

Lioness and lion cub feeding on an elephant carcass, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

African Lion (Panthera Leo) Rests After Feasting On An Elephant, Zimbabwe By Tim Plowden

Blood-spattered lioness rests after feasting on an elephant, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

African Elephant Calf Walks Across Parched Earth, Zimbabwe By Tim Plowden

African Elephant calf walks across parched earth, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

African Leopard (Panthera Pardus) Eating African Elephant Calf, Botswana By Tim Plowden

African Leopard eating African Elephant calf, Chobe National Park, Botswana.

White-backed Vulture At Sunset, Chobe National Park, Botswana By Tim Plowden

White-backed Vulture at sunset, Chobe National Park, Botswana.

All images are under copyright © Tim Plowden

About The Author

Reehana Shihab
Reehana Shihab studied Public Relations, Film, Television and Video at Curtin University and later received an MA in Mass Communications, Editing, Literary Journalism from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. She has a passion for the outdoors and has worked closely with Tim on script and story ideas since 2012.
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