Counting wildlife for the Great Elephant Census an arduous task – positioning aircraft and crews in the bush, often far from any kind of logistical help, and flying for sometimes weeks on a daily basis adds up. The information it can gather can be priceless, though, informing critical conservation efforts and long-term strategies to protect herds that are being devastated by poaching, human elephant conflict and habitat loss.
To accomplish the goal of collecting that data, we and our many partners in the GEC have to-date completed more than 75% of the aerial surveys planned (covering 90% of known savanna elephant range) the first such pan-African census in 40 years. An aerial survey of this magnitude requires strong partnerships and trans-border collaboration to implement consistent methodology standards and thus achieve a baseline number that can be continually monitored and updated as populations change over time.
Some of the data is already being used for crisis response and conservation planning. In Tanzania, where the latest GEC surveys revealed a staggering drop of more than 60% during a five year period, the government has been able to target poaching hotspots, engage new partners such as Africa Parks and increase protection in its most important wildlife areas. The 2014 GEC survey for Selous showed that the decline in elephants in what had been the largest population in Tanzania had stopped, and the population was stabilizing. This stabilization occurred because the government increased resources and enforcement after surveyors alerted them to the situation. Using accurate, updated population numbers derived from surveys, we are seeing first hand how raising awareness to the plight of elephants can motivate governments and help turn the tide for herds.
Ongoing monitoring of wildlife populations in crisis is vital – too often in the past, survey results have come in too late and dramatic declines have already happened. Most protected area managers in Africa are lucky if they can get census and monitoring results every 3-4 years, and many protected areas had not been surveyed for over 10 years before the GEC brought its resources to bear.
In response to the ongoing crisis in Tanzania, the government of Tanzania is co-sponsoring a new survey of the Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem in collaboration with Tanzania National Parks, Wildlife Division, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The survey will employ the same careful standards, ensuring data that can be credibly compared to the first GEC flights. The preliminary results for 2014 showed an almost 60% decline in numbers from 2009, and the protected area authorities in Ruaha and Rungwa need up-to-date information on where to target scarce resources.
The GEC is giving conservation actors including governments and NGOs the data they need to understand the threat to their elephant populations, but it is up to them to activate strategies that will preserve the species for generations to come, both within countries and across borders. Ongoing aerial surveys counting, and recounting, elephant populations provide both the foundation and the proof of proactive conservation solutions. We can’t wait another 40 years to count these populations again.