Africa’s Great Elephant Census One Year On

March 2, 2015
Contact: Janet Lathrop 413/545-0444
Elephant family. (Elephants Without Borders photo)

AMHERST, Mass. – The first year of the largest-ever census of savannah elephants in Africa is drawing to a close this month, aided by wildlife ecologist Curtice Griffin and postdoctoral researcher Scott Schlossberg at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who are analyzing data with Elephants Without Borders (EWB). The researchers are now reporting early trends for a handful of the 18 participating nations.

The two-year, $8 million Pan-African elephant survey by EWB and other conservation and government organizations, funded by United States billionaire philanthropist Paul G. Allen and his sister Jody, began last February. It will form a baseline that wildlife ecologists can use to coordinate conservation efforts. Experts say the ivory trade and poaching pose serious threats and there is now a risk that savannah elephants could disappear from parts of Africa.

EWB director Mike Chase presented preliminary data from Botswana last week to Tshekedi Khama, that nation’s minister of environment, wildlife and tourism. He says the two-year Great Elephant Census is finding high elephant densities, four and five animals per square kilometer, in some parts of the country, which has strict new conservation laws and practices. EWB also is seeing fewer elephant carcasses and none that appear to have been killed by poachers, an improvement over the last survey in 2010, Chase adds.

“Many of the changes in the local elephant population are due to movement of elephants between different parts of Botswana and surrounding countries and are not population reductions,” he explains.

Chase, who was Griffin’s graduate student when he founded Botswana-based EWB at UMass Amherst in 2007, approached his former professor last year to assist with data analysis using the most accurate, up-to-date counting and statistical methods.

Griffin says, “This is the first time it will be done on this scale and to these high survey standards.” The 18 survey countries are home to about 90 percent of Africa’s savannah elephant populations, he and Chase note. Because of the logistical difficulties of working in some remote areas with unexpected challenges, some aerial surveys originally scheduled for 2014 will be completed early this year instead.

A scene from Linyanti, Botswana. The Great Elephant Census involves aerial surveys conducted from small planes and helicopters, in which observers count herds in real time and take digital photos during fly-bys, a technique called strip transect sampling. (Elephants Without Borders photo)

Aerial surveys are conducted from small planes and helicopters, in which observers count herds in real time and from digital photos taken from fly-bys, a technique called strip transect sampling. Overall, the survey will engage 18 planes, 46 scientists and about 19,000 transects totaling about 373,000 miles (600,000 km)over seven months.

In some countries, EWB is partnering with park biologists and rangers, game wardens and organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Elephant Specialist Group, Wildlife Conservation Society, Frankfurt Zoological Society and African Parks Network.

Chase says the total elephant population estimate for northern Botswana is over 129,000, the largest in Africa. Because the quality of past counts of African savanna elephants has been uneven, outdated and even speculative, data on many populations weren’t reliable. The current survey is using state-of-the-art scientific techniques to identify poaching hotspots, guide law enforcement interventions and assess the severity of threats such as habitat loss.

He adds that EWB documented more than 2,000 elephants in one park a few years ago, but in 2013 found just 33 live elephants and 55 carcasses. “That is why this aerial survey research is so important. The threat of extinction is very real.”

At UMass Amherst, Griffin and Schlossberg are members of an advisory team compiling data, conducting statistical analyses and creating distribution maps to help Chase and EWB estimate abundance and geographic distribution of savannah elephants. UMass Amherst will also assist survey biologists to produce the final report.

Griffin, who visits Africa every year to help Chase and EWB, says, “It’s a remarkable gift to be able to work with such wonderful animals. I am a very lucky person. Anything we can do to help conserve elephants, we’re willing to do.”

The Great Elephant Census is not only counting elephants. Observers are also surveying large mammals, birds, baobab trees and categorizing elephant carcasses as fresh, old or with poaching evidence. In his report to the environment minister, Chase, a native of Botswana, says the survey estimated about 48,000 zebras, 26,000 buffalo, 9,000 giraffes, 9,000 hippos and over 72,000 impalas in Botswana, as well as a decline of 7 to 10 per cent for wildebeest, tsessebe and springbok, and 9 percent for ostrich.

He earlier reported some of the longest-ever elephant movements and provided vital information on the elephants’ status in places where numbers were previously unknown. In November, the census will share preliminary survey results with academics, NGOs and governments championing animal and land conservation.