Great Elephant Census shows animal facing extinction in many parts of Africa

Just 350,000 remain in 18 countries, a 30 per cent fall in seven years

An Elephants Without Borders plane flying over a herd of elephants at the Ngoma border between Namibia and Botswana while taking part in the survey in February this year. Photograph: AFP/Elephants Without Borders

An Elephants Without Borders plane flying over a herd of elephants at the Ngoma border between Namibia and Botswana while taking part in the survey in February this year. Photograph: AFP/Elephants Without Borders

 

The greatest animal census ever undertaken in Africa has revealed that elephant numbers are declining far more rapidly than previously believed – primarily due to ivory poaching.

The final results from the Great Elephant Census (GEC), which surveyed 93 per cent of all savannah elephants from the air, show an estimated 352,271 remain in 18 African countries, a decrease of 30 per cent (144,000) in seven years.

As many as 20 million elephants roamed Africa before European colonisation but this number had fallen to around one million by the 1970s.

When the census began in February 2014 elephant counts in many areas were out of date or mere guesses, but conservationists lobbied for the survey as they need reliable data to form proper animal conservation policies.

Undertaken by 286 crew members in 81 aircraft, who flew 494,000km over two years, the conservationists behind the census believe that at the current rate of decline, half the continent’s remaining elephants will be gone in just nine years.

“This was an extraordinary collaboration across borders, cultures and jurisdictions. We completed a successful survey of massive scale, and what we learned is deeply disturbing,” American philanthropist Paul Allen, who gave $7 million (€6.3 million) to fund the project, said at the report’s launch on Wednesday.



The GEC will form the backbone of an elephant status report to be issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Hawaii on Friday.

A further two counts will probably be added to the GEC elephant tally at the conference, with an extra 22,711 counted in Namibia, and 9,000 more in South Africa, where only Kruger National Park and the Tuli enclave were included in the survey.

The GEC found that in Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and south west Zambia, populations have been decimated primarily by poaching, to the point that elephants face extinction there.

For instance, poaching in Niassa, Mozambique, and Selous, Tanzania, has reduced the elephant population by 75 per cent in 10 years.

In contrast, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and parts of Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and parts of west Africa were found to have slightly increased or stable numbers of elephants.

“The result was particularly surprising for the W-Arli-Pendjar area [a conservation complex of protected areas that span Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso] in west Africa . . . an area that merits much greater attention and investment to protect the elephants that remain,” the report added.

One of the more surprising findings was that elephants appeared to seek out protected areas to roam, with 84 per cent sighted in legally protected areas, and just 16 per cent in unprotected regions.

“However, high numbers of elephant carcasses were discovered in many protected areas, indicating that elephants are struggling both inside and outside the parks,” the report said.

Forest elephants were not included in the GEC as a count of these animals requires labour-intensive ground work, and they are historically unreliable due to the density of the animals’ habitat. But a 2011 census estimated the population to range from 50,000 to 190,000.