In 2014, Paul G. Allen and our team at Vulcan set out to count Africa’s savanna elephants, an effort known as The Great Elephant Census (GEC). The Great Elephant Census is the first pan-African survey of elephants using standardized data collection and validation methods. Conceived to fill critical gaps in data by providing reliable population information, the GEC surveyed more than 93 percent of the savanna elephant populations in 18 countries.
Why count elephants? Because they’re disappearing from African landscapes, and people – especially poachers, traffickers and consumers who buy ivory – are their greatest threat. Habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict have long impacted elephants, but since 2005 massive poaching driven by the illegal global trade in ivory has been devastating many elephant populations. The last status report on Africa’s elephants was published in 2007, at the start of the current decline, and no one – until the launch of the GEC – had ever surveyed the majority of key elephant populations using standardized protocols.
Two years later, the results are in and they are alarming. The census shows a decline of 30 percent in African savanna elephant populations in 15 of the 18 countries surveyed. That’s a rate of decline of eight percent per year, primarily due to poaching.
As discouraging as the elephant crisis is overall the GEC also revealed cause for hope. Some countries are doing an excellent job of protecting their elephant populations, and can serve as models elsewhere. In other countries where poaching is still rampant, the survey’s disturbing results have already spurred officials to strengthen protections for surviving elephants, and to crack down on criminal networks driving their slaughter.
Even with this new data (explore it here), saving the elephants remains a challenge of continental dimensions. But now that we know the scope of the problem and where to concentrate our resources, those tasked with protecting elephants can become more effective in their efforts. I am confident that together, we will save Africa’s elephants.