There are now 30% fewer savanna elephants in Africa than there were in 2007.
This dramatic fall has been revealed by the Great Elephant Census, which was funded by American entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul G Allen. The Census took two and a half years to complete and involved flying for a total of 9,700 hours over 463,000km of savanna across 18 countries. The project used 81 planes and 286 crew to complete the surveys.
The final results of the count showed that there were 352,271 African savanna elephants in the wild, which represented a drop from 2007's elephant population of some 144,000 animals. The results are believed to be at least 93% accurate, which shows that even if the precise numbers are wrong, elephant numbers have dropped sharply across Africa.
Most of the elephants surveyed (84%) were living in protected areas. However, large numbers of elephant carcasses were spotted even in many protected areas, showing that poaching is still happening there.
If elephant numbers decline at current rates of 8% per year, there could be just 175,000 left by 2025. Elephant numbers are currently dropping by almost 30,000 per year as a result of the illegal trade in ivory. Elephant tusks, which are made of the substance, are very valuable in parts of Asia. Where elephants are killed by poachers, their tusks are removed, but the rest of the animal is left to rot in the savanna.
The Census found that Botswana had by far the largest elephant population (130,451), while in northern Cameroon, there were just 148 elephants remaining in the wild.
An important finding from the Census is the clear evidence that elephants have an awareness of where they are safe. Large numbers have crossed the border from neighbouring Angola, Zambia and Namibia, where elephants are not as well protected, to the safety of Botswana. This indicates real intelligence on the part of the elephants. However, moving to safer areas is leading to an elephant 'refugee crisis', as there are now too many elephants in Botswana for the environment there to cope with.
Recent discoveries of elephants killed by poachers in Botswana have shown that even there, the protection provided by the army cannot protect all the animals. The country has borders some 4347km in length and over such massive distances, border patrols cannot detect all incursions by poachers. While the market for ivory remains, it is unlikely that poaching will end, despite the efforts of governments to protect elephants.
In 2015, elephant tusks were worth over US $2,100 per kilo, with most illegal shipments ending up in China and Thailand. While the rewards remain this high, poachers will continue to kill elephants.
Photo: A herd of African Elephants emerge on to an island after swimming across the Chobe River, Chobe River, Kasane, Botswana.
Photo by: Peter Chadwick