Refreshing Our Map

We are in the middle of a busy time for the Great Elephant Census, with teams across the continent flying and counting. And some of the first results are being added to the project's database.

Click the map to see a larger version. 

Click the map to see a larger version. 

Now is a good time to update our map. When we launched this site and the project, we had a map from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Elephant Specialist Group that highlighted the "known" and "possible" ranges of elephants. 

We've built onto that initial map and overlaid the areas where survey teams have completed their parts of the Census as well as areas that are scheduled to be part of the project.

As you can see, there are still large areas where elephants are known or believed to be living that aren't part of the census. By focusing on the areas that we have selected, we will hit our goal of counting 90% of the continents savanna elephants. That 90% will allow the creation of an accurate estimate of the overall elephant populations.

Other areas are home to African forest elephants, which cannot be effectively counted using aerial surveys. We are exploring other ways to count and track elephants as part of the Census that could allow them to be counted in the future.

We expect to keep updating this map as the project moves ahead, so check out the Map page of the site and follow here as the survey teams complete the phases.  

Dramatic New Estimates of Elephant Killing Highlight the Need for New Data

New research from Save The Elephants, “Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants,” published today in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, quantifies the impact of poaching on African elephants across the continent as even worse than previously thought.

Study estimates a much more dramatic decline in African elephant numbers. 

Lead author George Wittemyer and the research team estimate that more than 100,000 elephants were poached between 2010-2012 on the basis of an extrapolation using fine-scale demographic data of an intensely monitored population in Kenya, carcass surveys for CITES MIKE sites and a derived rate of killing applied to International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) regional population estimates. Illegal killing rates averaged 6.8% per year continent wide (exceeding expected natural population increase by 2-3% per year), with regional trends being the worst in Central Africa (with an estimated 63.7% decline in forest elephants between 2002 to 2012 there.) 

Overall, 75% of the population sites examined have been in net decline since 2009. Intriguingly, the analysis suggests that the rate of killing in 2012, though still unsustainably high, declined after a peak in 2011. The authors explain that it is critical to identify the drivers of this change -- a change in the right direction for elephants -- and they point to the possible influence of ivory auction restrictions in China in 2011.

The analytic approach used to estimate the actual number of killed elephants relies on a total African elephant population estimate that is likely inaccurate because it is based on outdated data for many sites.

The Great Elephant Census aims to provide the most up-to-date, scientifically reliable estimates for 90% of Africa’s savanna elephant populations across 18 countries, as well as identify poaching activity, other human encroachment and habitat degradation.

We are still early in the process of surveying elephant populations to know whether new data will show larger or smaller than expected numbers. It will create the most accurate base to apply these new killing-rate estimates and derive a total mortality figure for African elephants. But we know that better data is needed to inform current and future efforts to conserve these animals. 

Developing New Technology to Enhance Accuracy

How do we know our elephant counts are accurate? The answer is a proven scientific process, rigorous training, and careful application of technology applied consistently across all survey teams.

Survey teams for the Great Elephant Census came together before any surveys were made to discuss standards and training, and to identify ways to improve survey methods using technology.

One bit of technology the surveyors desired was a better way to keep track of flight altitude and speed. Fly too high or too fast and they are likely to under count the elephants; fly too low or too slow and there is a risk of over counting. They sought a device that would make it easier track flight speed and ensure altitude was right. 

To address this need, engineers at Vulcan Inc., Paul G. Allen's company, developed and built a simple, inexpensive survey data logger to help pilots stay on track and to record the data scientists need to calculate the count post-survey. 

The data logger is built from mostly off-the-shelf parts, including a consumer tablet that serves as the screen and input method. An app written by Vulcan engineers supplies the brain. Custom mounting brackets created using a 3-D printer attach the tablet to the logging unit, making the whole package able to tolerate the rough operating environment of wildlife surveys.

Six data loggers have been delivered to survey teams already, with several more on the way. Vulcan engineers and Howard Frederick, one of the survey scientists, recently met in Seattle to discuss upgrades to the data logger based on feedback from the field. Howard shared his excitement about data logger as an important tool for improving the accuracy of the Census. The entire team is dedicated to helping produce the best possible Census data. 

Word Play: Analyzing Coverage of Elephants and Sharks

Which gets an issues -- or a species -- more "ink?" A week of dramatic and heavily marketed television or a sports team?

The Discovery Channel's Shark Week has done a great deal to raise awareness of sharks -- as well as spawning an interesting new movie franchise. As many people have seen this week, #sharkweek has also provided a platform -- particularly across social media -- for other organizations and brands to tag along.  

Upwell has done a great job in tying the reality television binge-fest of Shark Week into campaigns that inform people about the plight of sharks. 

While they are vastly different animals, elephants and sharks occupy similar positions as keystone species. They are both iconic animals that have a complex relationship with humans. And they are both under extreme threat, particularly by poachers. 

They have also received roughly the same amount of "ink" over the last 150 years, at least in The New York Times. recently released a research tool called Chronicle that allows users to analyze the use of words in the paper. I recently compared the number of articles that mention "elephants" or "sharks." 

Comparing the total number of articles that mention "elephants" or "sharks." Source: Chronicle

While "sharks" spiked higher at various points, "elephants" consistently get more mentions in the Times. Digging deeper into the spike in "sharks" around 1980 showed many instances of television listing with "sharks." Though I couldn't read the entire articles, this was not long after "Jaws" (1975) and there were a number of movies and documentaries that came out around that time which were clearly inspired by that iconic film. 

Looking at the percentage of articles that mention "sharks" and "elephants" shows a similar result:

Comparing the percentage of articles that mention "elephants" or "sharks." Source: Chronicle

In both cases, there has been an uptick in the mentions of "sharks" since 1990, and since then the mentions of sharks outpace the mentions of elephants. The Discovery Channel's first Shark Week happened in 1988, so there is a correlation between the increased mentions and the existence of Shark Week. 

But digging in to the underlying article lists, shows that many of the "sharks" instances refer to the San Jose Sharks hockey team which was created in 1991

So perhaps getting a professional sports team named after elephants could help them grab more "ink" in the future. The Evansville Elephants sounds pretty good. 

'Good to Go' in Zimbabwe

‘Good to go!’ said the email’s subject line. And so, just two mornings later -- three days before the end of June -- we were going, speeding down the airstrip in a small two-seater plane. After eight months of scheming and planning, plus a thousand emails, the 2014 national survey of the African elephant in Zimbabwe was starting.

As the plane lifted off and banked, Makuti lay to the left. This small place -- far too small to be called a town -- marks a T junction in the tar road: north to Chirundu and Zambia, or west to Lake Kariba. Its only petrol station had closed three weeks earlier. As the plane headed south, Makuti -- located on high ground amongst the hills of the Zambezi escarpment in northern Zimbabwe -- was most noticeable for its mobile phone towers and very tall radio masts (‘jammers’ someone had said). Such structures are a relatively new hazard to low-flying aircraft during elephant surveys – phone towers did not exist when I first flew wildlife surveys in Zimbabwe.

Senior Ecologist Greg Nyaguse of ZimParks prepares for take-off as the recorder/observer in the tiny Supercub aircraft used to conduct block counts in the hills of the Zambezi escarpment.  Makuti, July 2014

Senior Ecologist Greg Nyaguse of ZimParks prepares for take-off as the recorder/observer in the tiny Supercub aircraft used to conduct block counts in the hills of the Zambezi escarpment. Makuti, July 2014

Most aerial surveys of elephants involve flying long, straight flight lines at low-level. But that was not safe in this hilly terrain. Here we used a different approach. First, on a map, the area was divided into blocks, defined using rivers, vehicle tracks, or watersheds as boundaries. Then we selected at random some of the blocks and these were ones that we now searched for elephants.

A few days later, I handed over the role of recorder/observer to Greg. I had to return to town and organise logistics for the next stages of the programme: surveys of the elephants in Gonarezhou NP in the southeast lowveld and over the floor of the Zambezi Valley, just north of the hills that we were flying now. 

Once back in town, I wanted to buy more drums to transport avgas to the remote airstrips that the aircraft will use during the surveys. New, lined drums reduce the risks of fuel being contaminated. Economists may regard globalization as a good thing, but the disadvantages are immediately clear to me: there is a workers’ strike at the South African factory that makes the sheet metal which the Zimbabwean company imports to manufacture new drums. Hence, no new drums are available and no one knows when they will be. We will have to come up with another plan for fuel. And I need to import those fancy filters to make doubly-sure that no contaminated avgas goes into the plane.

A calibration run at 300 feet above ground level across the airstrip by the survey aircraft. Repeated runs are made to complete the calibration. Chipinda Pools, August 2014.

It is now the beginning of August and the survey programme has moved to Gonarezhou. Here we will fly those long straight transects. But first we must calibrate the width of the search strips. We fly backwards and forwards across the airstrip, with metre-high numbers, ten metres apart, aligned along the edge of the strip. For each pass over the strip, I note the aircraft’s height above the ground from the radar altimeter. Radar altimeters are essential for transect surveys (we can calculate the width of the search strips only if we know the aircraft’s height above the ground). But they are also notorious amongst survey biologists for being expensive and temperamental. And so it proves today. We need to adjust the rods attached to the wing struts to demarcate those search strips. We land and taxi towards the hangar and the spanners. Suddenly the altimeter display goes blank. No amount of fiddling with fuses returns it to life. Very soon, the sun sets and we head back to camp. 

In the middle of the night, some elephant bulls wander through camp, weaving round the tents. In the past, Gonarezhou’s elephants had a reputation for being aggressive, but no more. We assumed that these bulls were the same ones that approached camp earlier during the day. They had walked past Fay as she stood on the edge of camp, phone to ear, searching for a better mobile signal.

The next morning, more fuse-fiddling and even a test flight failed to return life to the altimeter. We consulted Olivia, ZimPark’s chief ecologist (easy to do, she was staying in the next-door tent). We rescheduled the survey for October. For me, it is back to town again. We need a substitute for that radar altimeter – we need a laser rangefinder. Once we obtain one, we will need to commission a custom bracket to attach it to a wing strut. And of course there will have to be a test flight. All within the two weeks before the start of the next survey – two weeks which would be divided by a four-day holiday weekend. 

Three elephant bulls wander off down the road after walking past Fay as she stood on the edge of camp, chatting on her phone. Chipinda Pools, August 2014.

- Kevin from the Zimbabwe survey team

A Profile in Philanthropy Magazine

Image from Philanthropy magazine

Image from Philanthropy magazine

Philanthropy magazine featured the Great Elephant Census in its summer 2014 issue. The article traces the history of Paul and Jody Allen's support for elephants and how that led them to initiate this project. 

The article also profiles other philanthropists that are using research, security, and economic incentives to save Africa's wildlife. 


"Expanding programs that combine economic incentives with conservation, and that attend to the needs and priorities of the human community, will be essential to further protecting endangered species."