Flyover Milestones

Zambia Census Results Announced: Luangwa and Kafue Stable, Lower Zambezi Declines and Sioma Ngwezi Declines Catastrophically

Zambia Census Results Announced: Luangwa and Kafue Stable, Lower Zambezi Declines and Sioma Ngwezi Declines Catastrophically

The Zambia Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) released today the Great Elephant Census results. Two elephant landscapes are stable, one is declining, and one is declining catastrophically due to poaching. 

Great Elephant Census Over 50 Percent Complete, Flies Over 136,000 km in 11 Countries

Great Elephant Census Over 50 Percent Complete, Flies Over 136,000 km in 11 Countries

Accompanied by the hum of the engine and the click of the camera, Great Elephant Census surveyors flew methodical grids over some of Africa's most beautiful landscapes, and counted every elephant in sight. 

Gearing Up to Count the Elephants of the Serengeti

The plane’s engine has a monotonous tone and everything feels calm as the plane levels out just above a heavy white blanket of clouds. Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru are the only geographic features present at this altitude, a true uniqueness and highlight of flying in Tanzania.

Survey pilot Felix Borner

Survey pilot Felix Borner

But now as we prepare to take part in the Great Elephant Census, a different type of flying will be our routine for the next couple of weeks. The flying we will do will require us to fly slow (around 110 miles per hour) and close to the ground (350 feet above ground level) in order to survey every elephant and buffalo in the Serengeti Ecosystem. This type of count is referred to as a total count and requires us to fly transects 500 metres apart, allowing for every animal to be accounted for. 

We have rolled out 80 drums of AVGAS –16,000 litres that will fuel three small aircraft. One Cessna 206 and two Cessna 182’s. Together, 260 hours of flying will ensure we cover the entire Serengeti Ecosystem (30,000 square kilometres). For the next two weeks, we will wake up at 6 a.m. to depart while the temperature and winds are mild and visibility is the best. We fly up to 8 hours every day. After the flying is completed, all the data needs to be recorded and entered into the system. By the end of the day we feel exhausted, hungry and dehydrated, but also proud to look back and see how much we have flown -- and in the end, proud to be a part of saving Africa's elephants.

Organizing and preparing for a large survey like the Pan African Elephant Aerial Survey in Tanzania is a substantial challenge. The fuel has traveled from South Africa into the port at Dar es Salaam, before being trucked to Mwanza in northwestern Tanzania and finally across the last stretch of dirt road to get to our base in Serengeti National Park.  

The Serengeti survey team

The Serengeti survey team

Three pilots, three front seat observers, six rear seat observers, three data management personnel, and three supervision observers make up the team – most having traveled several hundred kilometers to reach our base. The survey crew consists of professionals from many different organizations including Tanzania National Parks, the Wildlife Division of Tanzania, the Tanzanian wildlife research centre, the Ngorongoro conservation area authority and Frankfurt Zoological Society, not to mention independent consultants bringing in specialized expertise. Over the next couple weeks, they will all need to be housed and fed and looked after appropriately, as our work ahead is arduous. 

Our crew was trained and carefully selected from a team of experts including Dr. Simon Mduma, Dr. Mike Norton Griffith, Dr. Ian Douglas Hamilton and Mr. Howard Frederick. Together we counted the Selous Ecosystem in 2013 and we are confident that our foundation is a strong, professional and trusted crew. They make up the heart of this count!

African wildlife and wilderness drive the passion behind my work. With a concern for conservation of earth’s wild places I enjoy flying over these places and contributing to survey these areas. With over 3,000 hours of bush flying and survey flying under my belt, I love the simplicity of small bush aircraft and the work that can be done with them.

I count the wildebeest migration every 2-3 years, and have also taken part in many Surveys across Tanzania. 

Flying Over Zakouma National Park in Chad

In Chad, we have 3 areas to fly over for the elephant count, the first of them is Zakouma National Park. which just celebrated its 50 anniversary. Animals are doing well in the park and even the elephants, after years of massacres, have started to reproduce again.

Zakouma covers about 3000 sq km, and here we chose to to use a "total count" system, because elephants are often aggregated in one or two big herds and with a "sample" count there would be a big chance to miss the true number. The same situation applies for buffaloes, other very important species in Zakouma. 

The third most significant animal in the park is probably the giraffe, a subspecies known as G. c. antiquorum. The park has one of the largest populations of this subspecies. We also spotted several antelope species and ostriches that provided some additional excitement.

But, we were here mainly because of elephants, and it is always exciting to see them from the plane. They are used to planes flying over their heads, so they barely move when we pass over. It is very hot here, so from about 9 a.m. they are standing under the trees and don't move until the evening. It makes the counting more difficult, especially for the big herd.

In Zakouma, the majority of elephants stay together in one or two herds, plus few separate bulls. This behavior is likely caused by the stress from massive killings between 2006 and 2010. We hope they will start to slowly disperse into smaller family groups. One afternoon we saw just one elephant bull, alone, and then a small family group of 11 individuals. It was surprising, because they were far from the other elephants, near the Salamat river. There was a calf with them and because the herd was standing under the trees, very close to each other, we almost did not see it.  

The following day we found the big herd, which was split into three parts. The biggest group was more than 300 elephants; the others were smaller, all of them with calves. In general, the groups don't look like they have so many elephants and one can easily underestimate their number. We take pictures and examine the photographs later to get the right number.

Also, the elephants were in a high grass and we could not see calves easily, but later we counted 12 in all the groups. We also spotted a bull herd, 4 and 5 males just hanging around the village of Goz Djarat. They are accustomed to people and people are used to them.

It has been a good stretch and we haven't lost any elephants due to poaching in more than two years. While we were flying we spotted some of the old carcasses which reminded us how bad it can be.

The counting crew here has lots of experience in the area. Our pilot Jaime has been working in Zakouma for more than 1 year and knows the park very well. Satangar, the right seat observer, is one of the best observers I ever worked with, he can spot almost everything from the plane. Ahmat, the left seat observer, gained his experience during antipoaching flights in Zakouma.

Because we knew each other the work went smoothly, finishing the census here in 6 days. It was hot in our Cessna 182, with temperatures rising to 40C around midday, so we flew only early in the morning and late afternoon. During the middle of the day and in the evening I typed all the data into the computer, downloaded the GPS and backed-up everything in case something happens with our computer (not unusual in these conditions).

And since flying in the heat is hard work, a good siesta is an obligation.

Trying to Spot Manatees in Chad's Binder-Lere Park

Last week we returned from Binder Lere in Chad where we finalised the aerial survey. We flew nearly 30 hours during this portion of the census from Zakouma to N'Djamena.  

Start date: 4/14/2014
End date: 4/19/2014
Flying time: 29.5 hours 

The survey went well, but the reserve is worse than I expected, with a large area already overtaken by people. There was a very few wildlife to be seen. Giraffes and ostriches we saw were actually outside on the east of the reserve in a community area. We saw some roans, reedbucks, oribi and duikers. Also, spotted were some warthogs and baboons, but not a lot. T

We saw two herds of elephants, including several with tracking collars. One herd had two very small calves and both groups appeared to have good family structures. 

I also met people from a local community organisation called ILOD that is responsible for tourism in the Binder Lere reserve and organising fishing in its lakes. They gave me some documents about a foot transect that had been done in the past and also about the distribution of manatees in Léré Lake. We flew over both lakes, but not see any manatees. We flew at 6 a.m., the best time to spot them, but there was some wind and the water is very brownish-green. We saw nothing but fishermen.

I think for this kind of water, the aerial method is not appropriate (they use aerial counts in the sea and brackish waters or known aggregation places). We tried to count hippos, but they are not used to the noise of the plane and have been hiding under the water. We did spot a few groups, but a true count was not really possible and those animals are not a priority now.