Great Elephant Census Results

March 3, 2016

Results in Zambia Optimistic but Strong Protection Efforts Still Needed

“The numbers overall appear more positive than expected, suggesting that frontline protection is making a difference. This doesn’t mean we can rest now. Poaching is like water – it moves to the path of least resistance. When one area is better patrolled, poachers go elsewhere so we have to keep the pressure on.” – Matt Brown, Africa Conservation Director, The Nature Conservancy

Great Elephant Census

Running Elephants – Herd of Elephants run in Luangwa Valley. Photo © Kenneth K. Coe

The Zambia Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) recently released the results of their aerial survey as part of the Great Elephant Census. While the results are optimistic, continued efforts are needed to tackle poaching and align conservation with community benefits. The survey was funded by Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc. and supported by The Nature Conservancy who facilitated the training of DNPW ecologists on data collection, consulted on data analysis, and organized the 250 hours of survey flight time.

Zambia is one of 20 countries to participate in the Great Elephant Census, which launched in 2013 with continent-wide results due out this year. It is the first pan-African elephant census in 40 years, and researchers used a standardized method of data collection to create an up-to-date picture of the status of African elephants. The insights revealed through this survey can help create tailored management plans to more effectively protect elephants and deploy the limited conservation resources and dedicated rangers where they will be able to make the most impact. The census also pinpoints opportunities for countries to collaborate across borders and close security gaps.

“These results are a great example of what we hope to achieve through the Great Elephant Census by informing future efforts,” said James Deutsch, Director of Wildlife Conservation, Vulcan Inc. “In Luangwa and even Kafue, the existing elephant protection efforts seem to be successful in controlling poaching and stabilizing elephant populations, while elephants are declining in Lower Zambezi and Sioma Ngwezi. The census results tell us that we need to replicate Luangwa and Kafue’s success across all of Zambia’s, and Africa’s, national parks.”

“This survey provides the data we need to direct resources where they can have the biggest impact for both conservation and improving people’s livelihoods,” said Matt Brown, Africa Conservation Director, The Nature Conservancy. “The numbers overall appear more positive than expected, suggesting that frontline protection is making a difference. This doesn’t mean we can rest now. Poaching is like water – it moves to the path of least resistance. When one area is better patrolled, poachers go elsewhere so we have to keep the pressure on.”

Great Elephant Census

Close-up of an Elephant without Borders Cessna. Photo courtesy of Vulcan Inc.

The Great Elephant Census aerial survey was conducted from September 4-26, 2015, over 21 million acres of Zambia. The survey area comprised national parks and some game management areas with focal areas that included Kafue and Sioma Ngwezi National Parks, and the Luangwa Valley and Lower Zambezi systems.

The rigorous methodologies used for the Great Elephant Census, and the data now secured, is more standardized and thorough than what was previously available. It can also be aggregated with the other countries to provide a pan-African picture of the status of savannah elephants.

The results show that, overall, the elephant population in Zambia may be stable, but with large differences between different parts of the country. Turning first to numbers of live elephants, the censuses suggested that elephant numbers are stable (or possibly even increasing) in the two largest elephant landscapes, Luangwa and Kafue. In the third landscape, Lower Zambezi, numbers are declining. And in the fourth landscape, Sioma Ngwezi National Park, on the border with Angola and Namibia, elephant numbers are declining catastrophically, with the species almost extirpated.

The ecologists were not only counting live elephants, but elephant carcasses and the approximate age of those carcasses. A “carcass ratio” — the ratio of dead elephants to all elephants (alive and dead) — of 2 percent to 8 percent is considered normal for a stable or increasing population. The overall carcass ration for Zambia was estimated at 4.2%, meaning that the observed deaths were within sustainable levels and that the country’s population of elephants was stable to increasing, corroborating the live elephant counts.

Great Elephant Census

Portrait of a ranger from Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife. ©Kenneth K. Coe

For more details on the survey results and methodology –

“The Nature Conservancy is cautiously optimistic about the findings from the aerial surveys. The Great Elephant Census results clearly show that the work that has been put in place by the Zambia Department of National Parks and Wildlife and other partners like Game Rangers International, South Luangwa Conservation Society, and Frankfurt Zoological Society are yielding positive results,” said Victor Siamudaala, Zambia Program Director, The Nature Conservancy.

For example, The Nature Conservancy has been supporting Game Rangers International’s (GRI) anti-poaching efforts in Kafue National Park for the last three years. This increased enforcement has effectively reduced poaching numbers in the park, which is especially evident in areas where GRI has an active presence.

The Nature Conservancy also works in Zambia to fund and facilitate ranger operations, establish community-led conservation programs, and with the Zambian government to create wildlife laws to stop poaching and ensure that communities share the benefits of conservation.

“This census is helping to bring more people to the table and to prioritize the conversation around elephant protection initiatives. Protection initiatives may need to be intensified in areas where the elephant population is facing more significant threats,” said Brown.

The government has indicated that they will launch a working group to develop a way forward. The Nature Conservancy will participate along with other stakeholders to determine not only how we can continue to secure this population, but how we could build on our successful initiatives to see the elephant population grow.

Photos provided by The Nature Conservancy. Photo credits: Running Elephants and Portrait of a Ranger – © Kenneth K. Coe; Elephant without Borders Cessna – Courtesy Vulcan Inc.

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