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.