African Elephant Census Paints Bleak Picture

The Push Toward Extinction Gaining Momentum

Results of a new survey reveal that Africa’s savannah elephants are going fast. The Great Elephant Census estimates that about 352,000 elephants remain—down from previous estimates of 419,000 to 650,000 elephants in 2013. The authors estimate that they recorded 93 percent of all savannah elephants. Elephants in Africa are threatened by poaching for their ivory, habitat loss and human encroachment and conflict.

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“The statistics are frightening, and I hope they shock people out of their apathy so we can stem the tide,” said Mike Chase, founder of Elephants Without Borders, the group that oversaw the $7 million project.

A team that included 90 researchers from governments and conservation groups collectively flew 288,000 miles of aerial surveys — the equivalent of circling the globe almost a dozen times. They covered 18 countries, focusing on the national parks, refuges and range lands that are home to 93 percent of savanna elephants. Even in protected areas, researchers found many carcasses of elephants killed by poachers.

If the rate of decline continues at the current level of 8 percent per year, the continent will lose half its elephants within nine years and some populations could be wiped out, Chase said.

But the survey also uncovered some bright spots. Elephant numbers in Uganda more than quadrupled since the late 1980s. In Botswana, which is home to Africa’s largest elephant population, numbers held steady in many areas. And in a little-known park complex in Western Africa where the researchers expected to find perhaps 1,000 animals, they counted a thriving population of 9,000.

“The Great Elephant Census is an amazing feat of technology and science working together for wildlife — but these results are shocking,” said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Elephant populations in Africa are declining at an alarming rate and more severely than we anticipated.”

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“The data now clearly show that if we don’t act immediately to stop poaching, close ivory markets and extend the strictest protections to elephants, we’ll lose these iconic creatures forever,” Sanerib continued.

The survey results do not include Namibia (which refused to release its survey results but is estimated to have more than 22,000 elephants, bringing the total to 375,000 elephants) or South Sudan and the Central African Republic, where surveys could not be completed due to armed conflict. The surveys were only conducted for savannah elephants and did not include forest elephants, a separate and smaller species inhabiting west and central Africa. Forest elephants could not be surveyed using the same aerial techniques due to the forested ecosystems they inhabit.

“Forest elephant populations are already known to be decreasing at alarming rates and now the Great Elephant Census has revealed that savannah elephants are in the same boat,” Sanerib concluded. “A world without elephants would be a very sad place and it’s time for international action on the ivory trade to make sure we never live in that world.”

forest elephants Arabuko Sokoke Kenya

Now, it’s up to individual nations and international regulators like CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to crack down on poaching and protect elephants, Chase said.

“The Great Elephant Census holds us to account,” he said. “We can no longer use ignorance about elephant numbers to avoid action.”

In addition to the threat from poachers, elephants and other endangered species are losing critical habitat to expanding human populations. The battle over land use and water will play an increasing role with every passing day.

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