By PATRICK MAYOYO
The population of elephants in 18 countries in Africa has dropped by 30 percent in seven years a new study shows.
The Great Elephant Census indicates this drop is from an initial population of 352,271 elephants in the 18 African countries.
In seven years between 2007 and 2014, numbers plummeted by at least 30 percent, or 144,000 elephants.
According to the GEC three countries with significant elephant populations were not included in the study. Namibia did not release figures to the GEC, and surveys in South Sudan and the Central African Republic were postponed due to armed conflict.
And the specific cases are even more disturbing: In the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, and Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve, elephant populations have plummeted by more than 75 percent in the past ten years as poachers cut down family herds, according to the survey.
The Babile Elephant Sanctuary in Ethiopia hasn’t lived up to its name: Chase and the team counted just a single herd of 36 elephants — the last in the Horn of Africa, a vast area roughly the size of Mexico.
Elephant ecologist Mike Chase and the founder of Elephants Without Borders (EWB), was the lead scientist of the Great Elephant Census, (GEC) an ambitious project to count all of Africa’s savannah elephants — from the air.
“When you think of how many elephants occurred in areas 10 or 20 years ago, it’s incredibly disheartening,” says Chase.
“Historically these ecosystems supported many thousands of elephants compared to the few hundreds or tens of elephants we counted.”
The current rate of species decline is eight percent meaning that elephant numbers could halve to 160,000 in nine years if nothing changes, according to the survey — and localized extinction is almost certain.
Even before the census offered proof, scientists calculated that far more elephants were dying than being born. Now the species has reached a tipping point.
Before the GEC, total elephant numbers were largely guesswork. But over the past two years, 90 scientists and 286 crew have taken to the air above 18 African countries, flying the equivalent of the distance to the moon — and a quarter of the way back — in almost 10,000 hours.
Prior to European colonization, scientists believe that Africa may have held as many as 20 million elephants; by 1979 only 1.3 million remained — and the census reveals that things have gotten far worse.
The speed and scale of the project is unprecedented. Funded by Microsoft co-founder and Vulcan CEO Paul Allen, it brought together some of the best-known conservation groups and individuals, and teamed them up with the best bush pilots.
According to CNN, small workhorse planes like the Cessna 206 were transformed into viewing platforms, using frames made up of rods — in some cases telescopic golf-ball retrievers — fixed to the wing struts.
Observers on board the planes counted every elephant they saw within the grid, from Kenya’s Maasai Mara to the Zambezi floodplains in Zambia.
As well as the GEC, Chase and his colleagues in EWB are tracking the movements of Africa’s elephants using satellite collars which transmit real-time data on the elephants’ movements.
Their work has brought to light signs of elephants’ extraordinary intelligence, including evidence that they recognize a host of man-made threats — and are willing to cross borders to escape them.
Northern Botswana is a well-known elephant corridor for herds moving from Botswana’s arid Central Kalahari to the lush savannahs and forests of Angola and Zambia.
During Angola’s long civil war, elephants avoided the country. After peace was declared, they moved back in — but now, with the dramatic spike in ivory poaching, they’re staying away again.
“This is really the front line,” says Chase. “This is as far as they come. They will no longer move across eastern Namibia into Angola and Zambia, fearful of the consequences of poaching. Their home ranges have shrunk to within the relative safety and security of northern Botswana.”
In northern Botswana, the Linyanti river’s proximity to Namibia’s Caprivi Strip — a thin finger-like stretch of the country just 30 kilometers (18 miles) wide in parts — makes it an ideal target for gangs of poachers.
“Poachers can act with impunity here, because there is nothing blocking their movements,” explains Chase. “These borders are open to wildlife, and within a matter of minutes [they] can be in three different countries.”
He looks through a neat record of GPS coordinates recorded in a leather bound notebook, listing possible elephant carcasses spotted by commercial pilots flying over the area.
Their corpses rot in the dry river grass down below. One bull’s trunk has been hacked off and placed nearby — the poachers’ signature.
The killers often don’t even wait until the elephant is dead before they begin their ugly butchery.
The grotesque scene is repeated again and again across Africa’s savannahs.
“I’ve been asked if I’m optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Africa’s elephants, and on days like today, I feel that we are failing the elephants,” says Chase.
Botswana is one of the last strongholds of savannah elephants. Along with South Africa and Zimbabwe, it accounts for more than 60% of all elephants tallied in the Great Elephant Census.
To protect the country’s wildlife from poachers, the Botswana Defense Force (BDF) has deployed an infantry battalion of specially-trained soldiers; more than 700 are stationed across 40 bases in the far north.
In an immaculate camp on the banks of the Linyanti, a lieutenant lays out the morning’s foot patrol on the detailed operations map.
The soldiers are armed with a controversial shoot-to-kill policy for poachers, but this is an unconventional war.
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