Bird's Eye View of Elephants

Aerial Survey Will Reveal the Plight of Elephants in Zambia

This article was previously posted on National Geographic.

By Eric T. Schultz, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Zambia and David Banks, Managing Director, The Nature Conservancy Africa

Whether you are floating down the Zambezi River, eye to eye with curious elephants on the shoreline, or flying low over a thunderous herd, observing elephants is an unforgettable experience.

The Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) is conducting aerial surveys of elephants and other large herbivores in three of Zambia’s national parks and neighboring conserved areas. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is facilitating the training of ZAWA ecologists on data collection and organizing the approximately 258 hours of flight time over the course of four weeks.

The results of this survey have implications far beyond Zambia’s borders. Funded by philanthropist Paul G. Allen, this endeavor is part of a continent-wide effort called the Great Elephant Census. This count will be the first pan-African census in over 40 years. Researchers in 20 countries will use a standardized method of data collection to create an up-to-date picture of the status of African elephants. The insights revealed through this survey can help create tailored management plans to more effectively protect elephants for the long term.

The impressions from the survey were not encouraging. On a flight lasting approximately 75 minutes along the banks of the Kafue River, we only spotted four elephants. Even 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 ZAWA employees — elephant numbers are shrinking.

By now, most people know that the African Elephant is in danger. Increasing demand for ivory from places like China, the Philippines and even the United States have sent elephant numbers plummeting recent decades. In 1981, Zambia alone had an estimated 160,000 elephants. Today their number is likely one tenth of that.

National Geographic’s recent coverage of the ivory trade has been particularly eye-opening for the general public. And while many people in the U.S. and around the world want to do more, it’s easy to feel helpless as you watch the drama of the illegal ivory trade play out from afar. But there is more we can do. And it all starts from this science that will help ZAWA focus its limited resources.

And it all starts from this science that will help ZAWA focus its limited resources. ZAWA, like any wildlife protection entity, must have detailed data on the numbers and trends of elephants and other animals under its protection. Only with accurate information can they manage their wildlife in a sustainable manner.

More than 35 percent of land in Zambia is under wildlife conservation either as a national park or a special protected area. That’s one of the largest protected area systems in all of Africa — and a great first step in ensuring the protection of the animals that live here. But with great expanses of land to manage comes the need for more resources – more people, more vehicles and more technology.

Meeting ZAWA officials is a humbling experience. These dedicated men and women are charged with managing a huge area, often without the manpower or equipment they need. They work long days, often in remote areas and under difficult conditions, yet they remain unwavering in their commitment. Their dedication is exemplary and they need — and deserve — our support.

We have a chance to turn the situation around in Kafue National Park and throughout Africa, but we must act now. Once elephants are gone from Zambia and elsewhere, it will be too late. The Zambian government, NGOs like TNC, local people and the international community must all work together with ZAWA to combat this crisis.

It will be months before we see the full results of the survey. News about elephants is rarely good news anymore, so we’ll be bracing ourselves for sobering statistics. But whatever the data shows, knowing the truth can only help us. Not only can reliable figures educate people and encourage funding for ZAWA and wildlife-focused NGOs, it will allow ZAWA to use its resources most effectively.

This information will be how we arm ourselves for the next phase in the battle against extinction. And we must begin now.

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