A Billionaire Is on a Quest to Count All of Africa’s Elephants

A continent-wide survey funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen will give researchers a better idea of where conservation efforts are needed most.

Aerial view of an elephant herd. (Photo: Michael Poliza/Getty Images)

Oct 5, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Only recently have scientists been able to tally the massive death toll poachers are taking on Africa’s elephants, with studies showing that 96 of the giant mammals are killed by illegal hunting every day.

But just how many elephants are left? Nobody knows for certain. Scientists think as many as 10 million elephants roamed Africa’s savanna and dense rainforests at the turn of the 20th century, but today population estimates range between 400,000 and 700,000.

That wide discrepancy is a problem for conservationists trying to determine where, when, and how to protect the species from poachers looking to cash in on the animals’ tusks—a trade fueled by increasing demand for ivory goods in countries like China and Vietnam, and even the United States.

Now, conservationists are taking to the sky to count as many African elephants as they can. It’s called the Great Elephant Census, and it’s slated to be the first continent-wide survey of the animals’ population in 40 years.

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Great Elephant Census Coverage, as of May 2015. The census map shows the range of African elephants and what areas the census team is surveying.  (Photo: Great Elephant Census)

More than 20 countries have signed on to participate in the $7 million project, which is being funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. The flights started in 2014, and the team is about halfway done. They expect to have all surveys completed in 2016, which will give the team a bird’s-eye view of 90 percent of Africa’s savanna elephants.

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Flights are taking place over Zambia’s three national parks. Nature Conservancy team members are training Zambian ecologists on the data collection techniques they’ll need to complete the more than 258 hours of flight time the team is expected to conduct.

“You can’t effectively manage wildlife programs unless you know how many animals you have,” Eric Schultz, the United States ambassador to Zambia, said in a statement.

Schultz said the early reports from the aerial surveys have not been encouraging.

“On a flight lasting approximately 75 minutes along the banks of the Kafue River, we only spotted four elephants,” Schultz wrote in a blog post for National Geographic. “At the height of the mid-day heat, you would expect to see more of these magnificent animals from the air and especially near the river at such a hot time of the year. But even in Zambia’s national parks, like Kafue—where the animals have the protection of dedicated [wildlife agency] employees—elephant numbers are shrinking.”

In 1981, an estimated 160,000 elephants roamed Zambia’s savanna. “Today their number is likely one-tenth of that,” David Banks, Africa managing director for the Nature Conservancy, said in a statement. “It’s critical to deploy Zambia’s limited conservation resources and dedicated rangers where they will be able to make the most impact.”

With accurate figures of how many elephants are in Zambia and their location, agencies like the Zambian Wildlife Authority can better identify possible poaching hot spots and focus rangers on those zones.