A fleet of 18 light aircraft will notch up two years of flying time in 2014 to conduct the first aerial headcount of Africa’s elephants. Trained counters will attempt to take photographs of virtually every herd on the continent, which will then be used to verify their count.
Dr Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders is leading what is called the great elephant census. He and a team of 46 scientists will conduct the ambitious research project due to commence in February.
It is currently estimated that there are between 410,000 and 650,000 elephants left in Africa, representing more than a 50% decline in the last 35 years. But some key populations have not been surveyed for 10 years, and in some places, numbers are completely unknown.
Chase’s preliminary findings suggest the outlook could be more bleak. In October this year, he flew over a park where in 2003 he counted 2,000 elephants. A decade later, he counted just 33 live elephants and 55 carcasses. “That is why this research is so important.”
Elephant numbers have plummeted in recent years. Africa is currently experiencing the highest rate of elephant mortality in history, driven largely by a multibillion-dollar illicit ivory trade. Experts have warned that African elephants could become extinct within 10 years. Several hundred are killed every week by well-armed poachers seeking ivory, meat and body parts. Roughly 30,000 were killed last year, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
For the first year of the two-year project, survey planes will cover land in 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa where up to 90% of Africa’s savannah elephants live. In the second year, researchers will prepare the data. By mid-2015, preliminary results should be available. In addition to distribution and range, the census hopes to identify where populations are increasing, fragmenting, or shrinking, and provide a better understanding of the threats elephants face.
“By generating accurate, foundational data about African elephants, I’m hopeful that this project will significantly advance the conservation efforts of this iconic species,” says Microsoft founder Paul Allen, who is funding the £4.3m census.
Dickson Kaelo, CEO of Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association says the census is long overdue. “It’s unacceptable that we don’t have accurate data showing how many elephants there are and where they are.” Kenya recently estimated its elephant population at 38,000. “We don’t feel comfortable that we have exact population numbers”, he says.
“Elephants are a symbolic of our commitment to conservation in Africa. If we can’t save the African elephant what is the hope of conserving the rest of Africa’s wildlife?” Chase says.
The announcement of the survey also comes as countries at both ends of the international ivory market signed up to a package of urgent measures to halt the illegal trade.
Key African “range states” including Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Zambia, countries through which ivory is smuggled – including Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia – and ivory destination states, including China and Thailand, agreed to the measures at the African Elephant Summit in Botswana under the agreement. One of the 14 measures the delegates committed to involves classifying wildlife trafficking as a “serious crime”. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, this will unlock international law enforcement co-operation provided under the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, extradition and other tools to hold criminals accountable for wildlife crime.
Other measures agreed upon include engaging communities living with elephants in their conservation, strengthening national laws to secure maximum wildlife crime sentences, mobilising financial and technical resources to combat wildlife crime and reducing demand for illegal ivory.
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