Tracking Elephants in Namibia

Keith Leggett rounding up elephants in Namibia. Desert elephants drinking - photo by Regen JamiesonDesert elephants drinking - photo by Regen Jamieson
Tracking Elephants in Namibia

By Kristi Girdharry

"Why elephants? Now there is a question..." starts Dr. Keith Leggett, leader of the Desert elephants of Namibia expedition, "The short answer is long term fascination and [the] opportunity to work in really remote places. Of course the long version of this requires several bottles of red wine and a long time..."

Fascination and opportunity. These two words lend new meaning to those fortunate enough to work alongside Dr. Leggett. Thanks to the Earthwatch Institute, volunteers from around the world are able to come together with professionals and do some good in nature with their vacation time. This particular expedition works with the elephants of Namibia, intelligent and highly social mammals, who live in the Namib Desert.

Teams of volunteers will assist Leggett in tracking the new elephants, as well as up to a dozen others that have previously been radio-collared. In order to identify individual elephants in the field, they will use distinguishing tusk characteristics, ear scars, and footprint patterns. They will also observe the elephants behavior. All of this information will be used to help conservation agencies manage the unique elephants of Namibia.


As stated on the Earthwatch Institute’s website, “Attaching a radio-collar to a five-ton animal is no easy task. Especially if that animal, say, an elephant, has no interest in cooperating and does not necessarily turn up where you expect it to.”

So why do they bother? Although these elephants have adapted to living in the desert, they still require about 30 gallons of water a day. This causes them to be quite damaging—pushing down trees and trampling anything in their path. It is difficult for humans to live their lives with these massive creatures that tend to be rather destructive.

At the same time, these massive creatures are also a huge tourist attraction. Having income from tourists might be one of the only things saving this poor country. In order to come to an understanding with the elephants, Dr. Leggett is looking into their routines and ecology. Hopefully this will lead to a solution that will help humans and elephants coexist.

Giraffes are just one of the many amazing African animals you will see on this expedition. Photo by Tania Taranovski


Staying in isolated field camps in one Africa’s most spectacular and stark landscapes, volunteers work in the company of giraffes, gemsbok, springbok, and the livestock of local herders. They locate elephant herds from vehicles, note their location using GPS technology, document their behavior and group composition, track collared elephants, and collect dung samples for genetic analysis.

"To me, the less obvious but equally exciting part of this expedition is the chance to get to a really remote place, to live simply in this harsh, wild, beautiful environment.

"There were times we would climb to the top of a stony hill and not see a soul, just giraffes walking elegantly across wide open desert and elephants along the river tearing branches off the trees to eat or digging for water in the seemingly dry riverbeds, while the youngest juveniles romped playfully amongst the more serious elephant adults," says Tania Taranovski, who has assisted on the expedition before and is currently a Program Manager at Earthwatch.
"The people who do live here also struggle in this environment, and sometimes suffer greatly from the damage inflicted by these elephants. The struggle to find ways for humans and wildlife to coexist in their environment is universal, but so clearly illustrated in Namibia. My chance to work there for a couple of weeks re-energized me to return home, and still serves to remind me of why Earthwatch and our volunteers’ support of this type of work is so essential."

Dr. Keith Leggett and fellow travelers look out into the Namib Desert. Photo by Tania Taranovskit

Another great part of the expedition is the chance to work with Dr. Leggett. He has been described by volunteers as a brash and charming Aussie who has been living in southern Africa for most of his adult life. It is said that his periodic tales of “life in the bush” are endlessly entertaining; he keeps in touch with most of his past volunteers this way.

When asked about working with volunteers, Dr. Leggett claims, "I truly believe the only reason I take volunteers is that I tend to be a loner and a little anti-social (comes from spending too long in the bush), so dealing with different people from different cultures and backgrounds is actually good for me, no matter how difficult it is... well I tell myself this every time I get a difficult volunteer."


Earthwatch Institute is an international non-profit organization. It links volunteers up with scientific research teams, creating a way for the public to be directly involved with issues concerning the Earth’s future. Delta Willis, Communications and Media Manager for Earthwatch, explains a bit about how the programs are selected:

A view of the beautiful, stark Namibian landscape - photo by Regen JamiesonA view of the beautiful, stark Namibian landscape - photo by Regen Jamieson

“Scientists around the world apply to be supported by Earthwatch. Every year an average of 500 applications are received but only a fraction of those are selected, based on a long list of criteria, including areas where Earthwatch Institute wants to focus research.

Once scientists are selected, they come to Cambridge MA for the Annual Earthwatch Conference, which includes training sessions, and great networking opportunities with other research project leaders, some of whom have been supported by Earthwatch for decades.

Once the scientist is fully onboard, Earthwatch begins to recruit volunteers, describing the project in our Expedition Guide, providing details to media and on the website Members of Earthwatch, which you can join for $35 a year, sometimes get advance notice about new projects.”

There is never a shortage of people who can answer questions about their Earthwatch experience, as there are Earthwatch Field Reps across the nation. Some Field Reps have been on as many as 35 projects. Willis says, “For them it's neither destination nor specific interest; they simply love the Earthwatch experience of hands-on science, and the wonderful people they meet on these expeditions.”

Few Earthwatch travelers choose a project based on destination alone. Rather they choose based on their own interests: someone interested in archaeology may find themselves anywhere from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania to Peru or even Hot Springs, South Dakota. Wildlife buffs might track rhino in Kenya or work to save orphaned cheetah in Namibia.


Earthwatch has brought the public a great opportunity to volunteer for the desert elephants of Namibia expedition. Not only will you get to be up close and personal with these larger-than-life creatures, but you will have the experience of a lifetime. If you can’t make this trip, then there are other ways to help. Donations are always greatly appreciated.

According to Mike Godfrey, Dr. Leggett’s local agent, “First and foremost, we are looking for donors to sponsor a collar. The cost of a collar, including a contribution to the fitting of the collar and two years satellite time to keep track of the elephant, comes to about N$70 000:00. If you donate a collar you are also invited to travel to Namibia to assist the game capture team in fitting the collar to the actual elephant.”

The trip is 13 days long and is due to start on the 25th September. Earthwatch Institute asks for a contribution of US$2895 to go on the expedition.

Visit to learn more.

Kristi Girdharry

Kristi Girdharry is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD and a graduate UMass Amherst.

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