Census finds African elephant populations declining by 8% every year

CC BY 2.0 Kelly Landen/PeerJ

How can ivory possibly be more important than saving an iconic species?

The Great Elephant Census (GEC) is a three-year, $7 million project created to survey African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Managed by Elephants Without Borders, the immense project's report shows that elephant numbers are plummeting. The current rate of population decline is 8 percent per year, mostly thanks to poaching.

Currently the savannah elephant population is estimated to be 352,271 within the 18 countries surveyed. Africa may have been home to over 20 million elephants before European colonization and 1 million as recently as the 1970s, notes the report. Many elephant carcasses were discovered in protected areas, indicating that elephants are not doing particularly well within and outside of parks. The ivory trade and consequent poaching are posing such a serious threat that experts say we are at risk of losing elephants entirely from certain parts of Africa.

The census is the first-ever of its kind and is an impressive effort:

Overall, 90 scientists, six non-governmental organization partners, and two advisory partners, managed by a team at Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc. collaborated in the work. These included the organizations Elephants Without Borders, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Nature Conservancy, Frankfurt Zoological Society, African Parks Network and the advisory groups Save the Elephants and the International Union for Conservation of Nature's African Elephant Specialist Group. The effort was conducted which partnered with in country park biologists, rangers, and game wardens.

In figuring out the number and distribution of the continent’s remaining savanna elephants, we now have a baseline on a scale for future surveys and trend analyses that wildlife ecologists will be able to use in the effort to ensure African elephants' survival.

Dr Michael Chase, the Principle Investigator on the project, says, "the results of the GEC show the necessity of action to end the African elephants' downward trajectory by preventing poaching and protecting habitat." As the report concludes, "The future of African savannah elephants ultimately depends on the resolve of governments, conservation organizations, and people to apply the GEC’s findings by fighting poaching, conserving elephant habitats, and mitigating human-elephant conflict."

For more data and to see how the research was conducted, you can read the report in the journal PeerJ.

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