Botswana’s elephants belong to the subspecies Loxodonta africana – the savannah or bush elephant. African elephants are typically bigger than their Asian relatives, and Loxodonta africana have bigger ears and tusks than Africa’s other subspecies of pachyderm, the forest-dwelling Loxodonta cyclotis. This population is concentrated in two riverine areas of Botswana’s northern reaches – the Okavango Delta and, especially, Chobe National Park. This latter location is believed to support up to 50,000 elephants – with many staying close to the Chobe River for several months of the year. In contrast, the annual ebb and flow of the Okavango Delta results in a population scattered over a wider and somewhat-less-predictable area.
To put this wealth of elephants into continental and recent historical perspective, by 1989 the population of elephants in the whole of Africa was estimated at just 17,000 – having plummeted during the previous decade as a result of widespread poaching. Alarmingly, after a period of relative stability, Tanzania and Kenya have once again started to struggle to control ivory poaching within their borders – and world leaders are paying the situation renewed attention.
It could be argued that widespread political instability in neighbouring countries served to increase the concentration of elephants in Botswana. Whilst some of the population still ranges into Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola (the source of the Okavango River), state breakdown in Namibia and Angola increased the incidence of poaching in these countries. This, in turn, led to some of the surviving elephants spending more of the year in and around the relative safe haven of the Chobe River; knowledge of the established migratory paths to the north and west of Botswana was therefore not passed onto the younger generation of elephants and they, too, stay close to Chobe. For safari-goers, this is effectively a virtuous circle.
In contrast to the struggles of its neighbours, Botswana’s increasing prosperity since independence from Britain in 1966, the resulting political stability and the government’s steady emphasis on wildlife tourism has ensured that the country continues to be a stronghold for elephants.
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