Great Elephant Census details plight of African savanna elephants

Researchers combined ground counts, aerial surveys and advanced statistical analysis to estimate the abundance and distribution of elephants across the entire continent of Africa. Photo by EWB

AMHERST, Mass., Aug. 31 (UPI) — A new continent-wide survey of African elephant populations has revealed drastic losses among herds on the savannas.

The two-year survey, organized by the conservation group Elephants Without Borders, suggests African elephant numbers are currently shrinking at a rate of 8 percent per year.

Savanna elephant herds have fared particularly poorly, losing nearly a third of their population between 2007 and 2014.

Researchers used on-the-ground counts in 15 African nations combined with advanced statistical analysis to calculate elephant numbers throughout the continent. The fresh data allowed scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst to calculate the abundance and geographic distribution of elephants across the savannas of Africa.

“We at UMass Amherst are very proud to be a key partner in this great elephant count,” wildlife ecologist Curt Griffin said in a news release. “We continue to advocate and work hard for the conservation of elephants in the face of the slaughter they are caught in.”

The survey, which included the efforts of 90 scientists from a variety of conservation and research institutions, secured repeat elephant counts in as many places as possible to identify and minimize inconsistencies.

“An important question we wanted to answer in our research, is how many elephants are being missed by observers on aerial surveys,” Griffin explained. “To answer that we did a double observer study to understand the sources of error, so we can develop more accurate estimates of elephant population numbers.”

The primary threat to Africa’s elephants is poaching, fueled by the international ivory trade. The vast majority of elephants counted during the survey were found living in protected habitat. Unfortunately, a large number of elephant carcasses were also discovered in refuges.

Authors of the latest research suggest savanna elephants could disappear from much of Africa if the ivory trade is not ended.

The results of the survey were published this week in the journal PeerJ.


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