Water for Elephants

A deep-rooted mistrust of humans means that the elephants in Ishaqbini Community Conservancy would rather survive off plant moisture for months, than drink from a man-made water hole. As the dry season tightens its grip, community rangers are going the extra mile to try and quench the thirst of their elephants. 

They say an elephant never forgets, and the elephants in Ishaqbini are no exception. Ivory poaching was once so bad in this area that these animals were rarely seen – those who dodged the poachers either left the area completely, or remained hidden in thick bush – well away from humans. But when the Somali community in Ishaqbini established their community conservancy back in 2007 – things started to change for the wildlife here.

Most significant was the 3,000 hectare hirola sanctuary; established to protect the rarest antelope in the world. The hirola have done well here (70% increase in population in 2014), and they aren’t the only ones benefiting from this predator-proof, human-free enclosure.

The establishment of Ishaqbini Conservancy, of which the hirola sanctuary is a part, saw big cats, elephants, and other herbivores such as the Beisa oryx gradually return to areas previously devoid of wildlife. Local communities collaborated on better land management, and the conservancy rangers conducted anti-poaching patrols. In mid 2014, a heavily pregnant matriarch broke into the hirola sanctuary to give birth, with seven other elephants in tow. She knew her family would be safe inside the enclosure, but such is their deep-seated mistrust of the human race that they refuse to drink from the made-made water points.

So far, they have sourced their water from ponds filled with rainwater, and from the moisture of succulent plants and creepers. Rangers who have been monitoring the elephants since their ‘break-in’ have noticed that the elephants would rather go for months surviving just on plant moisture, than drink from anything that feels man made. As the dry season here is set to continue until April, the elephants are fast running out of options.

Concerned for this small herd they have come to know and respect, the Ishaqbini rangers, supported by Conservancy manager Mahat Abubakar, decided to take action. Monitoring the elephants movements, they built up a map of paths that the herd uses regularly. Using this map, they chose a spot in very thick bush in which to build the most natural-looking water hole they could manage. They sourced water outside the Sanctuary and filled a tank which they towed behind a tractor to the waterhole they had dug. On the fifth day of its completion, Mahat excitedly reported that the herd came close enough to dip their toes in the water, but stuck to their principles and refused to take a sip. “The magical elephants in Ishaqbini have not yet learned that we are out there to protect them” said Mahat.


Over a week later, Mahat excitedly circulated an update – “At last the magic elephants started drinking from the water hole! They have been drinking for two consecutive nights. We now plan to add the number of water holes for the elephants!” A fantastic effort by the Conservancy team to make life a little easier for a special group of elephants. 

The Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy continues its operations thanks to funding from IUCN, Al Ain Wildlife Parks and Resorts, the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.