The elephants that we are counting are also feeling the heat – small herds are frequently to be seen gathered in whatever shade is provided by isolated large trees. Often these elephants are lying down. Charles, the pilot, comments that elephants lying down seem to be more common than during his flights over the park in previous years. We speculate what this might say about their body condition.
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.
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.
Before we could begin the Great Elephant Census, the team had to decide which areas to fly over to make sure we hit our goal of counting at least 90% of the savannah elephants in Africa.
Data from the African Elephant Specialist Group helped inform that decision. The areas represented are those that we feel have a ‘definite’ elephant population. ‘Definite’ refers to a specific term from the AfESG that correlates to the highest level of accuracy in a previous survey count.
Here are some data points:
80% of African savannah elephants are found in just 5 countries: Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa
Add Mozambique, Zambia and Namibia and that area is home to 95% of Africa’s elephants
The ‘definite’ numbers are only one piece of the story however, and why there is a need for very accurate baseline counts across the most heavily populated countries, as well as other areas. There are also ‘probable’, ‘possible’ and ‘speculative’ numbers of elephants in each country. These populations are less known, but could add up to hundreds of thousands of elephants.
Check out chart below which is based on existing data: