Documenting the demise of Africa’s elephants
Sharon Gilbert-Rivett
March 11, 2015

More than 53,000 elephants have been massacred in the last decade in Tanzania’s Selous game reserve. In Chad’s Zakouma National Park 4,300 elephants counted in 2002 were reduced to just 450 in 2011. Across Africa, an estimated 100 elephants a day are succumbing to escalating levels of poaching. That’s equivalent to one every 15 minutes.

Many of Africa’s national parks are akin to war zones where battles rage on a daily basis between wildlife police officers, poachers and terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab and the DRC’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which use ivory to fund their insurgencies.

With so many being killed, how do we know how many elephants are left in Africa? This controversial and much debated question has thus far gone unanswered and has consequently dogged efforts to effectively protect them.

Whilst some individual range states have taken steps to record elephant populations and conduct regular counts, others have never been surveyed at all, leaving the estimation of numbers little more than a thumb-suck and making it impossible to properly assess the impact that ivory poaching is having.

The Great Elephant Census (GEC) is the first attempt to obtain an accurate estimate of the size and spread of the African savannah elephant, Loxodonta africana, which when finished should give the most comprehensive picture of the current conservation status of 90% of these animals.

Now in its second year, the ambitious two-year survey is a massive undertaking funded by American philanthropist Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. It is being directed by renowned elephant researcher Michael Chase, who heads up Botswana-based NGO Elephants Without Borders (EWB).

Most conservationists fear that the GEC will ultimately reveal a drastic drop in the number of elephant which was estimated in 2013 by the IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group at 433,999, spread across some 18 range states. Some elephant experts believe the number could be as low as 250,000.

“Without knowing how many there are, we are unable to plan for the future or know where to focus our efforts,” says Chase, adding that in some areas surveys have not been carried out for some 20 years. What is known is that without a doubt, elephants are declining in most parts of their range across Africa.

When he started the GEC, Chase says he hoped he would be able to deliver some good news to the conservation community about the fate of elephants. After the death of Satao, a legendary bull elephant in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park, killed for his immense tusks by poachers in June last year, Chase was forlorn.

“I feel as though the only good I’m doing is recording the extinction of one of the most magnificent animals that ever walked the earth,” he said at the time.

The GEC has not been all plain sailing and positivity, then, especially in dealings with certain range state governments, some of which have been reluctant to get on board.

“While getting political buy-in for the survey in all relevant range states has caused some delays, and in spite of the fact that we have yet to receive the go-ahead from Namibia and Zambia, the survey is on track and already yielding important preliminary data,” says Chase. “It is vital to get Namibia and Zambia on board because their elephant populations are largely contiguous with neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe and Angola,” he adds. This “shared” population cannot be properly counted unless all parties are participating.

“We have finished with Botswana, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe and are about to start in Angola, which has never been surveyed,” he adds. “It’s going to be exciting to survey a country where the status of elephants is completely unknown and represents such a huge question mark,” says Chase.

From there Chase will return to Kenya where thus far only the Tsavo and Amboseli ecosystems have been surveyed. “Kenya has been a huge challenge. We have not worked there before and encountered quite a bit of resistance to begin with, but we managed to gain the government’s confidence. We will be going back to Kenya in the next couple of months to complete the survey there.”We’ve been finding significant numbers of elephants in Ethiopia where people didn’t know they existed,” says Chase. “That’s uplifting and encouraging but we have to remember that these new discoveries need to be complemented with conservation. We collared elephants in these areas so we can monitor them.”

In June this year Chase and a team of analysts will begin data analysis from each country and write the final report. Whilst a few preliminary reports from individual countries have been issued, it is far too early to understand the overall population picture.

“Zimbabwe, for example, was one of the first countries to come on board and be surveyed,” explains Chase. “We are expecting a draft survey report in the next few weeks which will be presented to the government for review before being made public.”

Chase says that recent reports of improved numbers in Hwange National Park and drastically reduced numbers in Mana Pools National Park are speculative and impossible to corroborate yet. “While we are in the process of surveying elephant populations it is impossible to know whether new data will show larger or smaller than expected numbers,” says Chase. “At the time the recent media reports were published, the draft survey report for Zimbabwe had not even been started!”

The handover of the GEC’s final report will take place to coincide with CITES’s 17th conference of the parties (COP17) 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,” says Chase. “The point 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.”

Whether the final figures supplied by the GEC will lead to an improvement in the way Africa protects its elephants is not easy to answer, especially given high-level corruption and the considerable financial investment made by China, the leading demand nation for ivory, in many range states.

Ultimately, knowing how many elephants there are in Africa is not going to stop poaching, but it could just be the catalyst to spur lacklustre political leadership across the continent into more effective action.