For centuries, elephants have traversed the African continent, mapping their routes based around sources of food, water and danger.
The matriarchs of the herd use their remarkable memory to recall these migratory routes, leading their families to ripe feeding grounds with the changing of the seasons.
They use incredibly sophisticated communicative methods such as chemical secretions, vibrations, gestures and touch, to pass on information and warn other elephants of danger. Over the decades, that danger has largely come from humans.
War and poaching have decimated elephant populations, and as Africa develops, elephant migratory routes are stunted. The spread of farmlands, fences and reserves have stopped elephants from roaming their historical routes, leading to the overpopulation of certain areas.
When elephant herds congest in one area, not only do food and water become more scarce, but the land becomes damaged due to the massive weight of the elephants.
In recent years, many countries in Africa such as Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, in conjunction with organisations such as Elephants Without Borders and Save the Elephants, have worked to restore some of the migration routes of African elephants.
After working to clear human obstructions and impede poachers, many regions have found that elephants gradually reclaim their ancient pathways.
Elephants are known to avoid areas previously marked as dangerous for generations, however when these routes become safe again, they tap into their magnetic compass to guide them to greener pastures.
A map of their lands seem to be imprinted on their brain and researchers are still working to understand the sheer magnitude of an elephant's memory and their incredible migratory abilities. One thing we do know - an elephant never forgets.
In this post, you'll discover the major pathways of elephants around eastern and southern Africa, and the best lodges and camps to witness these nomadic giants of the African wilderness.
Elephants in Kenya
Elephants move around all year in Kenya, migrating to the best water sources and breeding locations.
They traditionally migrate around Laikipia and Samburu in northern Kenya, moving to the Ewaso Ngiro river in the dry season. They also travel through Mount Kenya to the Ngare Ndare Forest in the south for greener vegetation.
Recently, the Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor (MKEC) has been established to help the elephants safely reclaim their ancient pathways, previously lost to farming and poaching.
The MKEC connects 14 kilometres of a historical elephant migratory route between Laikipia and Samburu, allowing safe passage for thousands of elephants.
They can migrate between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare mountains, the Marsabit National Reserve to Laikipia, to the Ewaso Ngiro River and pass through Ngare Ndare Forest, Borana, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and other protected areas.
The local communities also benefit from the MKEC, as they avoid the issue of elephants wandering into the farmlands and destroying crops. It’s a fantastic conservation story and a great success in reducing the conflict between humans and wildlife.
Where to stay
A stay in Kenya’s wild north will place you in the path of roaming elephants. Saruni Rhino is located in the remote Sera Conservancy, perched on the edge of a dry riverbed where daily herds of elephants stop at the nearby waterhole.
You’ll also see impala, kudu, monkeys and many other animals here, and the lodge offers the first ever rhino tracking experience in east Africa.
Saruni Samburu is a luxurious safari lodge in the Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy, in Samburu land. They offer a state-of-the-art hide next to the waterhole to photograph the elephants and other animals who visit here.
Amboseli in Kenya’s south is a great place to see migrating elephants across the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. Located in the Chyulu Hills near Amboseli National Park, ol Donyo Lodge boasts a huge population of elephants spread across 275,000 acres of private land, including some of Africa’s last giant elephant bulls.
Elephants in Tanzania
You’ve probably heard of Tanzania’s Great Migration - a colossal parade of migrating wildebeest and Zebra between the Serengeti and the Masai Mara - but the country also bears witness to a lesser known migration of elephants.
The elephants travel from the Masai Steppe (with some coming from as far as Amboseli in Kenya) to Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara, where they’ll find a good supply of water even in the dry season - a rare sight for east Africa.
They’ll spend the dry season feasting on the greener vegetation, before making their way back through the Masai Steppe around November as the wet season kicks in.
Where to stay
You can stay right near the Tarangire National Park to witness the elephant migration. The Tarangire River Camp is nestled on the banks of the Tarangire River, where you can see elephants digging into the riverbed in the dry season, along with antelope, predators and bird species.
Stay in a treehouse at Tarangire Treetops, with elevated views over the Tarangire National Park, where some of the largest herds of elephant in Africa congregate.
Mdonya Old River Camp is located in the western part of the Ruaha National Park, a beautifully unspoiled corner of Tanzania. Here, guests can observe elephants passing by the camp from the veranda of their luxury tent.
Elephants from Botswana to Zambia
The elephant population in northern Botswana numbers around 130,000 - a third of Africa's elephant population and the largest population in the world. They typically migrate between the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and the Chobe River in Botswana, searching for food and water.
However, an ancient pathway between Angola and Zimbabwe is being rediscovered by the elephants, after farming, poaching and the Angolan Civil War destroyed their original route.
The historical route spans from eastern Angola to western Zimbabwe, crossing through the Kafue National Park in Zambia.
The corridor, which spans 44,000 square kilometres, has been restored through the joint efforts of the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFC).
KAZA TFC constitutes a region in southern Africa where the borders of Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge. At the centre is the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers.
The goal of KAZA TFC is to promote tourism without borders while harmoniously and sustainably managing the ecosystem, heritage and cultures of the region.
Since the end of the Angolan Civil War in 2002, and the establishment of KAZA TFC in 2006, the elephants are slowly resuming their lost pathway.
This provides relief for the heavily populated Okavango wetlands in Botswana and allows the elephants to safely follow their internal compass into greener pastures.
Where to stay
Camp Kuzuma lies along the elephant corridor between the Chobe National Park of Botswana and the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
Over 200,000 elephants move along this pathway, and you can witness these majestic creatures drinking at the waterhole, all from the comfort of your five-star lodge.
Nehimba Lodge, situated in the north-west of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, is renowned for their elephant visitors. In the dry season, elephants regularly come right up to the lodge to drink from the swimming pool.
You can watch them passing through the area from the deck of your stilted chalet, and you’ll also see a myriad of other wildlife including cheetah, lion and sable.
Zambia also has a number of fantastic wildlife safaris and lodges offering close encounters with roaming elephants.
Mfuwe Lodge in the South Luangwa National Park is located on a migratory route, and a family of elephants regularly wander straight through the lodge reception.
The elephants follow the matriarch along an old route to some wild mango trees, a path they remember from before the lodge was built.
Anabezi Luxury Tented Camp lies beneath a canopy of Ana trees, on a floodplain where the Zambezi and Mushika rivers meet.
Elephants love to feed on the pods that drop from the Ana trees and you can watch all the action from the private deck of your luxury tent. An array of wildlife congregate around the floodplain including buffalo, baboons, impala and leopards.
Musekese Camp in Kafue National Park allows you to get up close with these beautiful creatures from their elevated treehouse hide. Elephants regularly walk beneath the raised platform, making for a breathtaking view.
In the North Luangwa National Park, a stay at the remote Mwaleshi Camp sets you just 10 kilometres from the Mwaleshi River’s confluence with the Luangwa River. Here, large herds of elephants gather, along with wildebeest, buffalo, hippo, zebra, lion, hyena and incredible birdlife.
Elephants in Namibia
Namibia is home to a distinctive population of desert elephants, found only in Mali and northern Namibia. Although they are not considered a subspecies, these elephants have adapted to survive in the harsh, arid conditions of the desert with very little water.
They drink water every three to four days, compared to typical African Elephants which drink up to 200 litres of water a day. Known to migrate for up to 200 kilometres in search of food and water, they have larger feet that allows them to walk more easily across the desert sand.
The elephants of the northern Kunene Region will often travel from Hoarusib River to Hoanib River, and a bull elephant has even been observed travelling from Skeleton Coast Park in the Kunene Region in the west to Etosha National Park in the east.
Historically, the elephants migrated from the Kunene River on the Angolan border to Hoarusib River, however that route was destroyed due to the Angolan Civil War and the rampant poaching at the end of the war.
It is hoped that with the end of conflict and the establishment of conservation initiatives, the elephants can rediscover their lost pathway.
Where to stay
Located along the elephant migratory routes, Nambwa Tented Lodge allows you to watch elephants passing beneath your luxury tented camp nestled in the treetops.
The lodge is situated in the remote Caprivi strip near the borders of Zimbabwe, Botswana and Angola, where hundreds of wildlife species gather.
You can observe elephants, zebra, buffalo and ostriches wandering the floodplains of the Bwabwata National Park, and elephants are known to seek shelter under the lodge at night - so you may even get to sleep with an elephant!
Nkasa Lupala is set within the untamed wilderness of Namibia, near the wetlands and lakes of the Nkasa Rupara National Park. A myriad of animals are drawn to the water, and you can watch elephants from your veranda, along with hippos and lions.
Camp Kipwe is a unique lodge, designed to camouflage into the natural wilderness. Set within the Twyfelfontein Conservancy in Damaraland, the camp offers the thrilling opportunity to track the elusive desert elephants through the reserve.
If you’re looking for an African elephant experience, get in touch with our Luxury Travel Specialists to chat about your ideas, or fill out our enquiry form with details on your dream safari holiday.