By Jessica Hatcher
A fleet of 18 light aircraft will notch up two years of flying time in 2014 to conduct the first aerial headcount of Africa's elephants. Trained counters will attempt to take photographs of virtually every herd on the continent, which will then be used to verify their count.
Dr Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders is leading what is called the great elephant census. He and a team of 46 scientists will conduct the ambitious research project due to commence in February.
It is currently estimated that there are between 410,000 and 650,000 elephants left in Africa, representing more than a 50% decline in the last 35 years. But some key populations have not been surveyed for 10 years, and in some places, numbers are completely unknown.
Chase's preliminary findings suggest the outlook could be more bleak. In October this year, he flew over a park where in 2003 he counted 2,000 elephants. A decade later, he counted just 33 live elephants and 55 carcasses. "That is why this research is so important."
Elephant numbers have plummeted in recent years. Africa is currently experiencing the highest rate of elephant mortality in history, driven largely by a multibillion-dollar illicit ivory trade. Experts have warned that African elephants could become extinct within 10 years. Several hundred are killed every week by well-armed poachers seeking ivory, meat and body parts. Roughly 30,000 were killed last year, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
For the first year of the two-year project, survey planes will cover land in 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa where up to 90% of Africa's savannah elephants live. In the second year, researchers will prepare the data. By mid-2015, preliminary results should be available. In addition to distribution and range, the census hopes to identify where populations are increasing, fragmenting, or shrinking, and provide a better understanding of the threats elephants face.
"By generating accurate, foundational data about African elephants, I'm hopeful that this project will significantly advance the conservation efforts of this iconic species," says Microsoft founder Paul Allen, who is funding the £4.3m census. More....