Great Elephant Census: Two Years Later

February 26th marks the two year anniversary of the Great Elephant Census’ very first survey over the iconic Tsavo National Park in Kenya. Since this first flight, 19 countries, 95% of the known savanna elephant range, have been surveyed for the first pan-African elephant survey in over 40 years. 

It was fitting that the surveys began in Kenya, home of the legendary Iain Douglas-Hamilton who conducted the 1975 Pan Africa Survey. Sir Douglas-Hamilton joined Principle Investigator Dr. Mike Chase, founder of Elephants Without Borders, and the rest of the Great Elephant Census team in Tsavo to begin the new survey and fill critical gaps in data, which will help inform conservation strategies for national parks and reserves. 

The team marks transect lines for calibration. The lines have to be visible from above. 

Tsavo is an area of nearly 55,000 sq. km and is historically home to one of the largest elephant populations in Kenya. An iconic elephant habitat, Tsavo’s sheer size and teeming wildlife make it an excellent barometer for elephant conservation. The flights in Tsavo were not without struggles. At one point, after a “bush break” the plane would not cold start and the team had to get a “jump” from their friends at the Kenya Wildlife Service!

After many cold start attempts, all we had were blisters to show for it. The plane would not restart. 

KWS here to save the day!

Our memories of the Tsavo survey are bittersweet. It marked the first of over 506 days in the air, and it marked the last time anyone would see the mighty Tsavo tusker Satao alive. During the Tsavo census, we counted the great tusker as he trundled across his  habitat. But just a few short months after the Tsavo census was completed, Satao was discovered dead and mutilated at the hands of poachers, his magnificent tusks ripped from his skull and his body left to rot.

Satao sighting during the Tsavo census. 

Even as we mourn the loss of Satao, we are hopeful of what the census results can do for conservation in Tsavo and all of Africa’s vital elephant landscapes. The Great Elephant Census has one less elephant, but it is our hope that a future census will include many more. 

The total results for each elephant landscape, including Tsavo, will be peer reviewed and published later this year.