Travel & conservation company, since 1991
See how we earn 5 starsTrustpilot - 5 stars
Africa Geographic Travel

Written by: Hans Schabel

On a grey morning in the Babile Elephant Sanctuary (BES), East of Harar in Ethiopia, we had been driving through miles and miles of depressing bush, thick with invasive lantanas and fig cactus, and we had only come across one wild creature – a Salt’s dik-dik. This did not bode well for our wildlife safari.

babile elephant sanctuary
The ground flora in the Babile Elephant Sanctuary is in many places dominated by invasive exotics such as this opuntia cactus.

We had been warned that the probability of sighting Africa’s easternmost savanna elephants, which also happen to be the world’s last Somali elephants (Loxodonta africana orleansi or oxyotis), was at best iffy. With a population estimated at no more than 150 individuals, our endeavour would be like searching for needles in a 7,000km² haystack.

On top of being rare, these elephants also tend to be shy and remain well hidden in the dense jungle of the huge reserve. And, as if that wasn’t enough, safety was of concern too; Babile Elephant Sanctuary borders the Ogaden, a notoriously unstable region of Ethiopia plagued by Somali shifta. However, the lure of possibly bumping into these unique animals overcame our reservations.

Other invaders of the Babile Elephant Sanctuary include Somali herders with their dromedaries. There are now at least 45 settlements of squatters in the reserve.

Accompanied by an armed guard, we drove along a sandy track through the valley of the Errer, a tributary of the Leopard River (Wabi Shebelle). Frequently blocked by dromedaries, herded by Somalis toting AK-47s, the going was slow. Eventually we stopped at a Somali zariba to talk to one of the many illegal squatters resident in the Babile Elephant Sanctuary.

somali herder
One of the many Somali squatters in the Babile Elephant Sanctuary.

When he asserted that he had heard elephants nearby just a few hours earlier, our mood lifted. Then the sun finally broke through the gloom, and swarms of colourful butterflies flitted between the lantana and cactus flowers. Things were looking up!

butterflies and lantana
A butterfly visiting exotic lantana. There are many more exotic lantanas than native butterflies and Somali elephants in the Babile Elephant Sanctuary.

We set off on foot to see what we could find. Walking felt great, despite unavoidably brushing against the barbed mini-spears (glochids) of cacti along the narrow bush track. They caused an itchy rash (sabra dermatitis) for months to come. After half an hour, the snapping of branches ahead perked us up.

Pulses racing, we now stalked into a good wind until the grey, wrinkled back of a genuine Somali elephant came into view. Unfortunately, try as we might, we failed to see more than that patch of nondescript pachyderm hide above the dense tangle of bushes. The only way to get a better view was to climb an acacia.

somali elephant
While the vegetative overstory is still characterized by native acacias, the understory is to a great extent dominated by exotic lantanas and fig cactus.

Lo and behold, from up there the curtain opened to a grand show, as more than 30 portly actors with surprisingly small tusks were busily stripping acacia foliage.

somali elephant babile
Somali elephant immersed in a jungle of exotic lantanas and fig cactus.
babile elephant sanctuary
Somali elephant reaching for acacia branches overhead. The picture clearly shows the extent of invasion by exotic weeds.

As I blissfully clicked away, congratulating myself on our good luck, I witnessed a mating. What a treat! Jungle love, such as I had never before encountered in many years of African exploration, and the perfect climax to a once in a lifetime adventure!

Somali elephants mating
Somali elephants mating
Somali elephants mating
Somali elephants mating

To comment on this story: Download our app here - it's a troll-free safe place 🙂.


  • Travel with us. Travel in Africa is about knowing when and where to go, and with whom. A few weeks too early / late and a few kilometres off course and you could miss the greatest show on Earth. And wouldn’t that be a pity? Browse our famous packages for experience-based safaris, search for our current special offers and check out our camps & lodges for the best prices.

    Enquire now

  • Subscribe to our FREE newsletter / download our FREE app to enjoy the following benefits.

AG Logo

In the Guest Blogger profile, you'll see fresh and exciting content from a range of contributors who have submitted their content to us on a once-off or temporary basis, including press releases, campaigns and exciting adventure and travel tales!

Africa Geographic Travel
[wpforms id="152903"]
<div class="wpforms-container wpforms-container-full" id="wpforms-152903"><form id="wpforms-form-152903" class="wpforms-validate wpforms-form wpforms-ajax-form" data-formid="152903" method="post" enctype="multipart/form-data" action="/stories/the-last-somali-elephants/" data-token="839c50c25cb3c8e68238dde708e7d232"><noscript class="wpforms-error-noscript">Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.</noscript><div class="wpforms-field-container"><div id="wpforms-152903-field_1-container" class="wpforms-field wpforms-field-email" data-field-id="1"><label class="wpforms-field-label wpforms-label-hide" for="wpforms-152903-field_1">Email Address <span class="wpforms-required-label">*</span></label><input type="email" id="wpforms-152903-field_1" class="wpforms-field-medium wpforms-field-required" name="wpforms[fields][1]" placeholder="Email " required></div></div><div class="wpforms-submit-container"><input type="hidden" name="wpforms[id]" value="152903"><input type="hidden" name="wpforms[author]" value="3"><input type="hidden" name="wpforms[post_id]" value="40103"><button type="submit" name="wpforms[submit]" id="wpforms-submit-152903" class="wpforms-submit" data-alt-text="Sending..." data-submit-text="Subscribe" aria-live="assertive" value="wpforms-submit">Subscribe</button><img src="" class="wpforms-submit-spinner" style="display: none;" width="26" height="26" alt="Loading"></div></form></div> <!-- .wpforms-container -->