Elephants – The Numbers Game
Sharon van Wyk
2 Jan 2014

Do we have to know how many elephants there are in Africa to combat the scourge of ivory poaching? It’s a loaded question and one for which there is no easy answer.

The future of Africa’s elephants is hanging in the balance while one of the world’s leading conservation NGOs indulges in a dangerous game of numbers.

At the beginning of December, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) stated that according to its most recent analyses, Africa stands to lose a fifth of its elephants in the next decade if current ivory poaching rates persist.

In conservation circles this has been branded one of the most shameful underestimates to have ever been paraded as fact in the public arena, undermining the considerable efforts of leading conservationists across the continent by downplaying the critical position Africa’s elephants find themselves in.

It’s a position which many believe is worsening by the day, with some experts predicting extinction in the wild in most African countries if immediate drastic action against poaching is not taken. We’re losing an elephant every 15 minutes, or 100 a day, if the concerned voices being raised are to be believed. And certainly there seems to be evidence to support this view, with carcasses stacking up in alarming numbers across the continent.

But the crux of the issue is that no-one knows exactly how many African elephants – Loxodonta africana and its forest cousin, Loxodonta cyclotis – we have left. Numbers, or a lack of reliable ones, seem to be central to all conservation efforts and have spurred funding for a Pan-African aerial elephant census scheduled to take place next year which is intended to take away the smoke and mirrors which currently obscure the overall picture.

In the meantime, conservationists say, it is essential that the figures released by the IUCN are ignored and more recent, relevant data acted upon. It’s a startling indictment of the world conservation body which has lost considerable ground as a result of flawed and often out-dated statistics.

Most of the IUCN’s data comes from studying carcass numbers from the CITES-funded Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme and continent-wide population thumb-sucks provided by the IUCN’s own African Elephant Specialist Group in the African Elephant Database (AED).

“MIKE’s numbers are open to interpretation due to inadequate reporting levels at most of its 42 sites across Africa,” say Dr Trevor Jones and Dr Katarzyna Nowak, directors of the Udzungwa Elephant Project in Southern Tanzania, where poaching has decimated elephant populations. “The AED data is also suspect because it relies on estimates from woefully out-dated scientific surveys which have been far outpaced by the rapid increase in poaching in all range states.”

Most estimates for Tanzania, say Jones and Nowak, come from 2009 and for Zimbabwe, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo – all hard-hit by poaching – it originates well before 2006.

“This aging data is the basis for the IUCN citing a figure of around 500,000 African elephants left in the wild. The reality could be half of that,” say Jones and Nowak.

This is supported by the recently released results of an aerial census of elephants in Tanzania’s Selous ecosystem, which was carried out in October this year, which found that there are 13,084 elephants in an area of 80,393 square kilometres.

According to Jones and Nowak the Selous was estimated to hold more than 100,000 elephants in the early 1970s. “The dramatic increase in poaching in the late 1980s reduced this to around 20,000 but 1989’s global ivory trade ban allowed the population to recover to around 55,000 by 2007. By 2009 this had shrunk once more to somewhere in the region of 39,000. The current population, according to the October census, is 13,084. This represents an apparent decline of almost 80% over the last six years.”

Recent studies of forest elephant in central Africa estimate a 62% decline in numbers up to 2011. That figure has almost certainly worsened in the last two years. Add to this escalating poaching in Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe and you begin to understand why the IUCN’s figures are so disputed.

Ultimately, next year’s aerial survey will help to get a better idea of what the conservation world is dealing with in its fight to combat ivory poaching, Africa’s most prevalent wildlife crime.

It’s a crime which, as the oldest and largest environmental body in existence, with more than 1200 member organisations under its umbrella – 200 government and 900 non-government – the IUCN ought to have gotten under control, especially given the work it does for the

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

It is the IUCN’s analyses of endangered or threatened species which determines which CITES appendix that species gets placed on, either effectively throwing it a lifeline or pushing it overboard to sink or swim.

Could its underplaying of elephant numbers have more to do with moves to downgrade the species across the board to CITES Appendix II, thereby allowing limited trade in ivory?

Sharon van Wyk is an award-winning conservation writer and film-maker working with the Conservation Action Trust www.conservationaction.co.za