A pan-African survey of African savannah elephants has revealed declines of a staggering 30% – 144 000 elephants – between 2007 and 2014 in the areas covered by the survey.
The Paul G. Allen’s Great Elephant Census (GEC) is the first continent-wide aerial survey of African elephants using standardised methodology. Principal investigator, Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders, said that, together with more than 90 scientists, six NGOs, and dozens of conservationists and volunteers on the ground, they had surveyed 18 African countries of savannah elephant range and counted over 93% of their populations across a million miles of territory in 81 aircraft, and ultimately recorded an estimated population of just 352 271 for the entire continent.
Among the worst declines were Angola (22% decline), Mozambique (53% decline) and Tanzania (60% decline). These figures, said Chase “were much greater than previously known and expected, and mainly due to staggeringly high levels of poaching”.
Extremely low numbers of elephants were also found in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, northern Cameroon and southwest Zambia. Chase believes that the “populations there face local extinction”.
Chase and his team were not only counting live elephants but dead ones too. In the countries with declining live elephants there were correspondingly high carcass ratios. A carcass ratio is the percentage of dead elephants observed during the count. For example, a carcass ratio of 10% indicates the survey team recorded one dead elephant for every nine live elephants that were counted.
On average, a carcass ratio of more than 8% indicates poaching at a level high enough to cause a declining population. The highest carcass ratios occurred in: Cameroon (83%); Mozambique (32%); Angola (30%); Tanzania (26%).
The carcass ratio continent-wide was 11.9%, meaning that elephants in general are declining across the continent.
There are other notable statistics. Regional areas in both Zimbabwe and Zambia, especially along the Zambezi valley, are showing that poachers are decimating elephant numbers. Zimbabwe’s overall population was down by 6% with a carcass ratio of 8%, which is bad enough, but within the Sebungwe region, on the Zambezi River and Lake Kariba north of Hwange National Park, populations were down a whopping 74% while Zambia experienced a startling 85% carcass ratio in Sioma Ngwezi Park on the border with Namibia and Angola.
In contrast, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, parts of Malawi, and the W-Arli-Pendjari conservation complex of protected areas that span Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso, were found to have stable or slightly increasing elephant populations. The W-Arli-Pendjari area is the only large savannah elephant population left in West Africa.
Namibia also showed increasing numbers of elephants especially in the Zambezi-Caprivi area, but this is possibly because the territory runs the length of the unfenced border with Botswana, the country with the largest single population of elephants, which stands at about 130 000 strong. The bulk of Botswana’s elephants are in the north, close to Namibia. And since elephants are not confined by national boundaries, there is a constant movement of large herds between the two countries.
However, there are worrying signs for both Namibia and Botswana.
While Namibia was not officially surveyed by the GEC, aerial surveys that took off in northern Botswana to survey southern Angola and Zambia had to fly flew over the Zambezi-Caprivi strip of Namibia. Chase, who has independently been surveying the area for the past decade and a half says, “Ironically, Namibia’s increase of elephants in the area coincides with the highest mortality/carcass ratios over a 15-year period.” He also mentions that helicopter pilots inspecting a power line along the Zambezi-Caprivi strip recently estimated nearly 200 carcasses from the Kavango River to Katima Mulilo, a distance of just 60 kilometres. This indicates that poachers who are causing carnage just across the border in Angola and Zambia have been operating on the Namibian side of the Zambezi River with increasing intensity.
Botswana, even though it is the bastion of African savannah elephants and home to one-third of the entire continent’s population, is not immune to high levels of poaching. The total elephant population of the country has decreased by 15% in just the last five years.
Namibia and Botswana along with Zimbabwe and South Africa have their elephants listed under Appendix II by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning that under certain conditions they may export ivory. In fact, Zimbabwe and Namibia have called for a lifting of those restrictions at the next CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP 17), which begins on the September 24 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Both nations cite good management policies of their elephants.
However, the latest figures for Zimbabwe suggest the exact opposite. The country easily meets the CITES criteria – an annual decline rate of just under 1% - for an Appendix I listing, or a full ban on any commercial international ivory trading. Namibia’s high carcass ratio warrants the same treatment.
Out of the four Appendix II countries, only South Africa, with its fenced-in populations of elephants, appears to have escaped the scourge – although in the last two years the Kruger National Park has seen a dramatic spike from zero poaching-related elephant deaths per year to over 20 for both 2015 and 2016. If the runaway poaching of rhinos is anything to go by, South Africa might soon be overrun by a flood of ivory poachers.
“These GEC figures are a shocking wake-up call for those about to debate the future of ivory trade,” says Sally Case, CEO of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, a non-bureaucratic organisation that supports a range of innovative, vital and far-reaching conservation projects throughout Africa. “They show a loss of elephants at a spine-chilling level; there can no longer be any justification for debating a future trade in ivory which is driving losses on this scale.”
In contrast to Namibia and Zimbabwe’s proposals, a group of 29 African countries from West, Central and East Africa, united under the African Elephant Coalition (AEC) – which covers 70% of the elephant range – earlier this year tabled a suite of five proposals to be presented at CoP 17. These are designed to provide for a comprehensive and full protection for Africa’s elephants and include a proposal listing all elephants across the continent under Appendix I.
“The call by the AEC for an Appendix I uplisting, which until now has received stiff opposition from the southern African states, many European countries and some NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund, seems to have been vindicated by the latest GEC results,” says Vera Weber President and CEO of Fondation Franz Weber, a partner organisation to the AEC. “An uplisting, which is aimed at sending a clear message to consumers that buying ivory is illegal, will at least be one step towards arresting the population free-fall of one of the world’s most iconic of species,” says Case.