Iconic Namibian elephant 'Voortrekker' killed by trophy hunter

Picture: Christin Winter

Picture: Christin Winter

Published Jul 1, 2019


Namibia's most famous elephant bull known as Voortrekker ("Pioneer") to thousands of tourists was shot last week by a trophy hunter, ten years after he first escaped the hunter's bullet. 

 The elephant was shot on a “problem elephant “permit, however it appears that this was false, as a letter from three communal conservancies opposing the hunt sent to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) earlier in the week shows.

"We understand that complaints have been received from communities living in the Omatjete area. The Ugab west population of desert elephants do not cross into those communities," wrote a group calling itself the  Ugab Concerned Conservancies to MET deputy-director Christoph Munwela.

"It is not correct that elephants from areas outside of the zone of complaints are shot," they noted, warning that frightened elephants posed a far greater threat to their local communities. 

"These elephants are our resources, and we object to them being hunted for problems caused by different populations of elephants," the people of Otjimboyo, Sorris Sorris and Tsiseb conservancies protested.

So why hunt out the most famous and last dominant bull, ignoring the massive negative publicity that would result? 

MET PRO Romeo Muyanda said “It was shot to generate funds for the affected communities. We had the elephant hunted as a trophy….”. So it appears that the life of a magnificent elephant, worth an incalculable amount as a tourist attraction was sacrificed for a mere N$120 000, much of which will go to the Professional hunter and in licence fees to MET, with little trickling down to the communities, and that to the wrong communities. 

He was, except in reputation, no longer a trophy, having broken one of his tusks off years ago.

With little or no real rainfall since 2014 and national elections looming later this year, the elephants appear to be paying the price and in Voortrekkers case, twice.

Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA), an NGO that helps manage elephant-human conflict in the area, in 2008 had raised U$12,000 to buy the tag for Voortrekker as a 'live trophy' from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET),

Voortrekkers' docile nature has likely made him the most-often photographed elephant in Namibia - and his death as problem elephant an especially poignant one.

Officially, the desert-adapted elephant herd that roams between the ephemeral river systems of the north-west are considered an anomalous population that, in the MET's opinion, do not belong there.

They are also regarded as a major management headache - and declaring them problem animals and having them shot has historically been the official preferred method of dealing with them.

Historically, by the early 1980s, they had all disappeared from the area, shot out by poachers and for sport by former apartheid-era Cabinet Ministers - and of course cattle farmers intent on driving them off their land and back into the Etosha National Park.

Voortrekker, however, was the pioneer who first started frequenting the area again in in the late 1980s, and later led a larger Etosha break-out group into the Brandberg and Ugab river areas where they eventually settled in. 

Although there were initial conflicts between the local rural farmers and Voortrekker's herd, they had become a permanent feature and unique tourist attraction. 

A geologist who often works in the area and knew the two herds said he suspected the smaller herd, aggressive and frightened by farmers shooting at them, may be the real cause of the Omatjete constituency's complaints that led to Voortrekker's death warrant being issued. 

The writing appears to be on the wall for this small group of hardy survivors: there are now only 26 animals left, and of the three bulls left in the Ugab River, Voortrekker was one only two breeding bulls. All nine calves born since 2014 had died within a week, a sign of a distressed population. 

So, how did Voortrekker suddenly become a problem animal - and then a trophy bull - after 30 years? That part remained an official mystery.

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