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The Matriarch Adventure: Sisterhood of the Travelling ’Phants

Desert elephants are essentially African elephants (Loxodonto africana) that have evolved larger feet and thinner bodies to cope with the drier environment Desert elephants are essentially African elephants (Loxodonto africana) that have evolved larger feet and thinner bodies to cope with the drier environment Mogens Trolle
03 Mar
Expedition leader, Catherine Edsell, leads a team of ten women into Namibia to track rare desert elephants

In line with both World Wildlife Day (3 March) and International Women’s Day (8 March), an all-female expedition is today setting off to the Namibian wilderness. The ten-woman group will spend the next ten days in the testing wilderness, searching for the unique company of desert elephants.

‘Elephants have a matriarchal society, and are relatively rare in that fact,’ expedition leader Catherine Edsell tells Geographical. ‘When you spend enough time with one herd you can really see how that works out over the generations – the groups organise themselves around a lead female, which is usually the oldest in the group.’

While bull elephants are pushed out of the herd when they reach maturity, females live with their grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters and daughters, sharing responsibility for calves and following their matriarch in the search for food and water. In a desert landscape, the leader’s role is all the more important – most rivers are ‘ephemeral’, which means they only flow above the surface for a short time each year. As a result, though desert elephants are not a separate species from African elephants, they have evolved larger feet to help them trudge through sand dunes and to dig through the ground for purer water.

The matriarchal herds of elephants are an important draw for the expedition’s all-female team. ‘We come from a range of backgrounds,’ says Edsell. ‘Some are older, some are younger, some have dead-end jobs while others have children who have flown the nest and so have lost their purpose. We will have to come together as a sisterhood in quite an extreme environment, in a relatively short amount of time. Seeing herds of elephants working as a similar sisterhood could be very moving.’

shutterstock 37994182 2The dried bed of the Ugab River (Image: Gail Johnson)

The team will set out for the Ugab River, a key source of water for the elephants in northwest Namibia, and team up with Elephant Humans Relations Aid (EHRA). Set up in 2002, EHRA monitors the herds of elephants as they rebound from high poaching rates that crippled their populations in the 1980s. With poaching now curbed, it is still unknown how the desert elephants will repopulate the region and in what ways they will impact local communities. Edsell, who has worked with EHRA in the past and has a background in using expeditions for biological research, feels ‘this is partly about personal transformation as well as doing something useful.’

An elephant herd’s hell-bent search for water can make it destructive and even a danger to communities in the region. Part of EHRA’s remit is to reduce human-elephant conflict by protecting wells and creating awareness and education. The Matriarch Adventure hopes to contribute to this effort by communicating specifically with women in those communities. ‘They have just had some rain, and the river has flooded, so it’s possible thats those elephants have left the riverbed and are going to be heading to the farms. It is easy to romanticise how amazing these people’s lives are and how amazing the wildlife is, it’s easy to forget that this is real-life, often threatening situations,’ says Edsell. ‘We want to ask them “what is it like being a woman in these communities, what if you feel threatened by elephants, or if your brother is a poacher to make ends meet? How do you feel about it?”’ She hopes that with better understanding, it will be easier to come up with mutually beneficial goals for conservation.

Read full details on The Matriarch Adventure here, including the team’s itinerary and how you can sign up for future expeditions.

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