• ORC Intern

The Elephants Versus The Bush: Photopoints help to reveal forgotten landscapes

The Okaukuejo Waterhole is arguably Etosha’s most famous landmark. Its desolate landscape and memorable bare white rocks have been the background of thousands of holiday photos. However, if you were to travel back even half a century, this iconic waterpoint would be surrounded by shrubs and bushes. Thanks to photo points, we can go back in time to see what this place looked like long before smartphones were invented.

Photo points are set locations where photographs are taken repeatedly over a number of years to monitor changes in vegetation and infrastructure over time. Since 1984, over 450 individual photo points, spread over the whole of Etosha National Park, have been photographed roughly every 6 years.

These photographs have been stored in cabinets in the storerooms at the Etosha Ecological Institute before I copied them into a digital jpeg format. In addition, I went into the field to take new digital photos at these points for 2022. This was a highly rewarding and exciting task, involving close encounters with rhinos and leopards, not to mention a few hairy meetings with African bees.

Upon returning to Ongava to sift through the pictures, I decided to look at images of Okaukuejo waterhole over the last few decades. To my astonishment, in 1984 the waterhole was nestled amongst what could only be described as dense bush. Where had all these bushes gone?

Okaukuejo Waterhole, 1984
Okaukuejo Waterhole, 2022

After some reading and chatting to colleagues at ORC, I wondered if this drastic change in vegetation might be attributed to elephants. Elephants are considered to be keystone species and even ecosystem engineers due to their destructive nature and ability to thin and clear bush which facliltates secondary productivity. They often feed on woody plants and trample shrubbery, leading to warped growth forms and the widescale loss of vegetation. These effects are magnified around waterholes which see higher levels of elephant activity during the dry season. Due to hunting and poaching, elephants were mostly absent from much of Etosha throughout the last few hundred years. This changed in the 1980’s when the Park witnessed an explosive rise in the population of elephants attracted by the high density of new artificial waterpoints opened in the Park. The magnitude of this population growth led to the sanctioned cullings of entire elephant herds in 1983 and 1985. The increase in pressure caused by the increasing elephant population may also have led to the degradation of flora at many of the waterpoints across Etosha, and so the rise of elephant numbers is a plausible explanation for the dramatic retreat of vegetation surrounding the Okaukuejo waterhole and the sparse landscape we now see today.

Author: Charlie Adam, ORC intern