A Massive Survey Finds Far Fewer African Elephants Than Expected

Mother and baby elephant
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This is bad. This is really, really bad. CNN published a report today examining Africa’s savannah elephant population and it’s even worse than expected. The survey was led by elephant ecologist Mike Chase, who is both the founder of Elephants Without Borders and the lead scientist in charge of the Great Elephant Census.

For the past two years, Chase along with 90 other scientists and a 286-person crew spent almost 10,000 hours flying over 18 African countries, calculating the number of savannah elephants currently alive on the continent. Their work was released yesterday in the journal PeerJ. It revealed that Africa’s savannah elephant population was significantly lower than previous estimates and merely 352,271 elephants were alive in the countries surveyed. This is compared to an estimated 20 million elephants in Africa before European colonization.

While the numbers for Namibia, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic were not included in the survey, it is still remarkable to consider this decline should each of these countries report best case scenario numbers. CNN reported that between 2007 and 2014, elephant populations plunged by at least 30% or 144,000 elephants. In specific regions like the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, this decline was as much as 75% in the past ten years.

Poachers in Africa show no regard for the decline in elephant populations. First hand accounts of the gruesome methods poachers use to acquire elephants’ ivory tusks are horrifying. While some poachers will shoot the animal, then dismantle it and leave its body to rot, other less sophisticated methods include the use of grenades and mortars left over from wars, poison-tipped spears, spiked traps and snares, and poisoned water holes. This is all despite the fact that elephants are actually more valuable alive than dead. When we consider the millions of dollars elephants bring in related to ecotourism compared to the small percentage a poacher will earn selling tusks on the black market, the numbers become somehow more disheartening.

It’s stories and statistics like these that prompted Chase to begin the Great Elephant Census. With funding from Microsoft co-founder and Vulcan CEO Paul Allen, Chase was able to corroborate some of the best organizations in the world. In addition to tracking elephants and observing their populations from small planes, the teams have also witnessed incredible intelligence among the elephants. During civil wars, the elephants have shown evidence of avoidance and returned when conflicts subsided. They’ve also responded to spikes in poaching.

It’s no wonder Chase told CNN he feels “we are failing the elephants.”

In Botswana, a specially trained 700 person defense force has been deployed to protect the country’s wildlife. The Botswana Defense Force soldiers are armed and follow a “shoot-to-kill” policy for poachers, but their task is difficult with such an ambiguous enemy (including the possibility that the enemy may be among them). Making matters even more difficult is the fact that poachers are equally well equipped and sometimes better trained.

The future for savannah elephant populations in Africa is grim and Chase admits he’s afraid for all of Africa’s wildlife. Despite that he and the team of CNN reporters who covered his work decided to name an elephant they’d just tagged Promise, in the hope that its future would be safe.

(Via CNN)