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The Great Elephant Census: A Pan-African Survey of All The Continent's Pachyderms

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Dec 13, 2013 09:49 AM EST
African Elephants
Elephants trumpet a low, rumbling alarm call specifically when they detect approaching humans, according to new research from wildlife biologists working in Africa. (Photo : Reuters )

An ambitious attempt to conduct a census of all of Africa's elephants is set to take flight in February 2014. The Great Elephant Census, as the project has come to be known, will be the first pan-Africa census of elephants since the 1970s.

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The move to account for Africa's elephants comes at a time when the illegal poaching of the mammals for their tusks continues to increase, with some estimating that the current level of elephant poaching in Africa is at the highest it has been in decades. As many as 100 elephants are killed each day for their ivory, meat and body parts, according to World Elephant Day.

Jason Bell, the director of Botswana's Elephant Program for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said earlier this month that 18 tons of ivory have been seized in 2013, a figure that represents the deaths of as many as 40,000 elephants.

"If the killing doesn't stop, it is predicted that 20 percent of Africa's elephants will be lost within 10 years," Bell said in a statement.

The Botswana-based conservation group Elephants Without Boarders will coordinate The Great Elephant Census. The two-year project will use a fleet of 18 light aircraft to conduct aerial surveys of the 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa where up to 90 percent of the continent's elephants live. A land-based campaign will employ trained counters who will attempt to take photographs of every elephant herd on the continent. The aerial data will be cross-referenced with the land data to ensure accuracy of the census.

Mike Chase, the director and founder of Elephants Without Borders, said that in October of this year, his team conducted an aerial survey of a park where more than 2,000 elephants had previously been counted.

"Over the past few years, I have documented with regret the slow retreat of elephants from habitats they were rapidly repopulating," he said of the park. "We counted just 33 live elephants and 55 elephant carcasses. That is why this research is so important."

The Great Elephant Census represents an international cooperative effort between African governments and NGOs including the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Frankfurt Zoological Society, African Parks Network and Save the Elephants.

Forty-six scientist are on the census team, and the aerial surveys will amount to more than 18,000 flight hours.

Goals of the elephant census include identifying where elephant populations are increasing, decreasing or fragmenting, as well as to provide data on the pachyderms' distribution and range.

The census is financed largely by philanthropist Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft. In the past, Allen has made significant donations to conservation projects in Africa, and his $7 million donation to fund the elephant census will enable it to get off the ground.

"I've spent enough time in Africa to see the impacts of poaching and habitat loss on the continent's elephant population," Allen said in a statement. "By generating accurate, foundational data about African elephants, I'm hopeful that this project will significantly advance the conservation efforts of this iconic species."

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