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On-going Research Projects

Matriarchal Associations and Reproduction Project

Elephant Well-digging Project

On-going Research Projects

- Long-term monitoring of the northern Kunene desert elephant population

- Reproduction and survivorship of offspring in the population

- Human-elephant conflict issues

Matriarchal Associations and Reproduction Project

In 2010 we completed a project with Dr. Keith Leggett on matriarchal associations and reproduction in the northern Kunene desert elephant population. Results were published in the Journal Pachyderm (No. 49, Jan-June 2011). A copy of the Abstract is below, and the entire manuscript can be viewed here.

Matriarchal associations and reproduction in a remnant subpopulation of desert-dwelling elephants in Namibia

Keith E.A. Leggett, Laura MacAlister Brown and Rob Roy Ramey II


This study focused on a subpopulation of desert-dwelling elephants in the Kunene region of north-western Namibia, where rainfall and resources are scarce, and the rate of reproduction and recruitment is low. This subpopulation can be considered a remnant; its oldest members are survivors of the war-related poaching that occurred in the region during the 1970s and 1980s, and its numbers have still not recovered to pre-war levels. Unlike less disturbed elephant populations with strong, multi-tiered matrilineal associations, previous research suggested that the associations in the Kunene subpopulation involved only loose affiliations lacking strong social bonds. Taking that study a step further, this manuscript examines the social structure of all adult females (n=14) in the subpopulation, based on observational data combined with mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequence data. A network analysis was generated from nearly eight years of association data. It was found that female desert-dwelling elephants live in first-tier/family units or small second-tier/family groups, and in at least two cases these include unrelated adult females. Associations at the level of third-tier/bond groups are rare and transitory, and there was no evidence of these being dominated by a single female or matriarch. The matrilineal social structure in this subpopulation is consistent with reports from other poached or culled elephant populations in Africa. Collectively, the results of these studies are inconsistent with the classic model of elephant social structure—stable, strictly matrilineal societies—especially in cases where poaching or culling has occurred, even if it transpired decades previously.

Elephant Well-digging Project

In 2011 we also completed a project on desert elephant well-digging behavior. Results have been written up and the manuscript is in the process of being revised for publication. Eva Ramey was the principal researcher on this project and it will be her first scientific publication. A copy of the Abstract is attached here, and the entire manuscript can be viewed under Publications and Media on this website, once it has been published.

Desert Elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Namibia Dig Wells to Purify Drinking Water

Eva M. Ramey; Rob Roy Ramey, Ph.D.; Laura M. Brown, Ph.D.; Scott T. Kelley, Ph.D.


In arid regions of southern Africa, elephants (Loxodonta africana) are known to dig wells using their feet and trunks in order to access water beneath the surface of dry sandy riverbeds. This behavior is found even in areas where surface water is readily available. Desert-dwelling elephants of northwestern Namibia also routinely damage borehole infrastructure to access water, even when water is available to them in man-made drinking pools immediately adjacent. What is it about the water in "elephant wells" and in boreholes that prompts elephants to go to such extremes to access it, when free-flowing water is more readily available? This study compared coliform bacterial counts in water sampled from recently dug "elephant wells" and boreholes, with samples from the nearest surface water available to the elephants, in the arid Kunene region of northwestern Namibia. Results of 13 pairwise comparisons collected over two field seasons revealed significantly lower coliform bacteria counts in the elephant wells, than in the nearest surface water or drinking pools. Coliform counts from the two boreholes in the study area, periodically damaged by elephants, were also dramatically lower. We conclude that these behaviors, well-digging and breaking-in to boreholes, are attempts by the elephants to access less contaminated drinking water. Understanding elephant behavior around water may help the development of more effective counter-measures to protect man-made water sources and better provide for the needs desert-dwelling elephants and assist in their long-term survival.




©Copyright 2012 Desert Lion and Elephant Conservation, Inc.