It took two years, 81 aircraft and 286 crew flying 494 000 kilometres across 18 countries and the support of 90 scientists to count Africa's savanna elephants. The final tally was an extremely worrying 352 271.
The team was led by Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders and supported by a $7-million grant from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his sister, Jody, and was the largest African wildlife survey ever undertaken.
The results of the Great Elephant Census (GEC) are a wake-up call. Elephant numbers in all but a few African states are declining, some alarmingly. In the countries surveyed, savanna elephants are dropping by eight per cent a year, mainly due to poaching. The population in the countries surveyed now stands at an estimated 352 271.
Between 2007 and 2014, in 15 countries where reliable previous counts were available for comparison, populations were found to have declined by 144 000 or 30%. In Tanzania the population has plummeted by a shocking 60% in five years, in Mozambique by 53% over the same period.
The GEC forms the crucial backbone of an elephant status report to be issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Hawaii on Friday. [Subs Sept 2] Two counts will probably be added: Namibia with 22 711 and South Africa with an extra 9 000 (only Kruger Park and Tuli enclave were included in the GEC survey).
Forest elephants counts are unreliable varying from 50 000 and 190 000 following a 2011 census. Since then poaching has escalated dramatically. If taken at 50 000, that would put Africa's elephant population at around 434 000.
According to the GEC report to be issued in the PeerJ Journal tomorrow [Subs: Sept 1], Africa is estimated to have been home to around 20 million elephants before European colonization. As recently as the 1970s this stood at around one million. A wave of poaching in the 1970s and 1980s decimated populations in many areas and a renewed outbreak beginning around 2005 led to the deaths of a further 30 000 elephants a year.
When the GEC census began, elephant counts in many areas were out of date or mere guesses. Its goals were to discover the number and distribution of savanna elephants over most of their range and provide a continental baseline for future surveys.
The count excluded forest elephants which require labour-intensive ground tallies. Their numbers there are not encouraging. A forest survey was done in 2013 and found that between 2002 and that year the forest elephant population declined by 62%, losing 30% of its geographical range.
Important findings by the survey team were that:
- Across the entire research area, elephant deaths are exceeding the birthrate.
- Poaching in Niassa (Mozambique) and Selous (Tanzania) reduced the elephant population by 75% in 10 years.
- Populations in the West Zambezi ecosystem in Zambia plummeted from 900 to just 48 elephants between 2004 and 2015.
- Elephants are likely to become locally extinct in Mali, Chad and Cameroon if current trends continue.
- Protected areas are failing to shield elephants from poaching. And 16% of savana elephants (50 000) are not in protected areas.
- Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe are the good news, with relatively large elephant populations which are increasing or declining only slightly.
- Of the total African savana population counted by the GEC, Botswana has 37%, Zimbabwe 23%, Tanzania 12% and South Africa 8%.
- According to the PeerJ report, the census recorded 201 poacher's camps and 3.39 million head of cattle in the survey area. 'This suggests that conflict between humans and elephants is widespread. In elephant range areas, human populations are projected to double by 2050.'
According to the report, it is 'hoped that this survey will encourage people across Africa and around the world to protect and conserve elephant populations.
'The future of savanna elephants depends on the resolve of governments, conservation organizations and people to apply the GEC's findings by fighting poaching, conserving elephant habitats and mitigating human-elephant conflict. With populations plunging in many areas, urgent action is needed to reverse these ongoing declines.'
- Don Pinnock