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The Great Elephant Census

The Great Elephant Census

The Great Elephant Census researchers
The Great Elephant Census researchers


The Great Elephant Census



February marked the halfway point of the largest-ever census of savannah elephant in Africa, the Great Elephant Census (GEC). The ambitious two-year survey is a huge undertaking, funded by American philanthropist Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and is being directed by renowned elephant researcher Mike Chase, who heads up the Botswana-based NGO, Elephants Without Borders (EWB).

The researchers are now reporting early trends for a handful of the 18 participating nations. Although some conservationists fear that the GEC will ultimately reveal a drop in the number of elephant, estimated in 2013 by the IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group at 433,999 spread across all 18 range states, there is positive news from parts of the continent.

EWB director, Mike Chase presented the preliminary report of the Botswana census to Honourable Minister Tshekedi Khama, of the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. The estimated total elephant population for northern Botswana is just over 129,000, the largest population in Africa. The survey team also saw fewer elephant carcasses and none that appeared to have been killed by poachers, an improvement over the last survey in 2010 when 20% of elephant carcasses seen were recorded as poached.

This can be attributed to government conservation and anti-poaching measures, and the strict conservation laws and practices in place. However, the Great Elephant Census is not only about counting elephant. Observers are also surveying other large mammals, specific bird species, baobab trees and recording environmental disturbances.

In his report to the Minister, Chase and his team estimated close to 48,000 zebra, 26,000 buffalo, 9,000 giraffe, 9,000 hippo and over 72,000 impala in Botswana. The survey also documented a worrying decline of 7 to 10% for wildebeest, tsessebe and springbok, and 9%  for ostrich. These declines show that there is more work to be done and further research needed.

The teams use state-of-the-art scientific techniques to identify poaching hotspots, which help to guide law enforcement intervention, and assess the severity of threats such as habitat loss. The surveys occur in tandem with active protection. The aerial surveillance of the various census teams is itself a deterrent to illegal activities and detects poaching threats. Wardens have been alerted to the locations of poached elephant and have responded with increased vigilance.

Serious measures have been implemented and commitments made to safeguard elephant after they have been counted. For example, anti-poaching units have been funded, equipped and trained, while some 30 African scientists have been trained to monitor their wildlife populations.

Other countries that have already been surveyed as part of the GEC include Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. EWB is partnering with park biologists and rangers, wardens and organisations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Elephant Specialist Group, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the African Parks Network.

With the data coming in, there have been some unexpected results. “We've been finding significant numbers of elephant in Ethiopia where people didn’t know they existed,” said Chase. “That’s uplifting and encouraging, but we have to remember that these new discoveries need to be complemented with conservation measures.”

There is still plenty of flying to be done. The EWB team will soon start in Angola, where the full elephant range has never been surveyed. “It's going to be exciting to survey a country where the status of elephant is completely unknown and represents such a huge question mark,” said Chase.

In June this year Chase, with assistance from Prof Curtice Griffin and Dr Scott Schlossberg from the University of Massachusetts, USA and their team, will begin data analysis from each country to write the final report. Whilst a few preliminary reports from individual countries have been issued, it is too early to understand the overall population picture.

The handover of the final GEC report will coincide with the CITES conference taking place in Cape Town in 2016. “Our final technical report will combine all country reports into a single document which provides an impartial, independent and uniformly accepted standard in aerial surveys across the continent, and which sheds scientific light on what has up until now been a rather clouded view of Africa’s elephant numbers, shaded in controversy and open to criticism,” said Chase.

The objective is to identify the pressure areas where conservation funding is going to have the greatest impact and to finally form a scientific benchmark from which conservation agencies, NGOs and governments can take their lead.