Dumbo's Demise

Very recently PeerJ published one of the most in depth reports on the plight of the African elephant conservation effort. Their Great Elephant Census took over three years to collect all the data necessary to create this comprehensive and descriptive analysis. ( I highly recommend you read it if you have the time.)

The Great Elephant Census spent these three years gaining on-site research and data from eighteen different countries within the continent. In a feat previously unparalleled, the census (the vision explained here) was able to account for greater than ninety percent of the elephants of Africa.

This census, is in a sense (pun so very intended), holds a vast amount of information about the illegal poaching trade. Detailing the timeline from 2007 until 2014, the population of African has been very negatively affected by black market poaching. In fact, the population has declined by about 144,000, a number that is highly devastating for the species already on the endangered spectrum.

From reading this report, I was surprised to learn one thing: that the population of African elephants is of largely unknown quantity and quality, despite seemingly constant global naturalist attention. Because of this, the Great Elephant Census is considered very easily the most holistic study possible, taking the most trusted estimates for the beginning of their analyses.

In order to attack their research head on, the scientists originally split up the African elephant population, focusing on Savannah elephants. They used hierarchical surveying methods (which seems to have involved lots of aerial surveys and lots of government preauthorizations). In order to maintain accuracy in numbers, there seems to be multiple observers and teams and reanalysis.

I could bore you by me trying to explain their meticulous mathematics, estimations, and analysis with my mediocre skills in science, but that is not why I brought up this particular piece of news. I find the results to be the most impact-full part of the report. From their analysis, the scientists describe the nations with the highest elephant mortality rates: Angola, Cameroon, and Mozambique. I feel it can thus be implied that these nations also face high levels of illegal poaching of the African Savannah elephants for their ivory. This is especially concerning because the GEC also estimates that 84% of African Savannah elephants are in protected areas. That to me means there are significant inefficiencies within these reserves throughout Africa that need to be considered. Despite their status as protected areas, poachers are able to infiltrate these areas (something that needs to be looked at and revised policy-wise if possible- but this is not a part of what the GEC set out to do).

The Great Elephant Census also notes a couple important things. The GEC mentions the ever important fact that the trends varied by nation and region, as they explained using an analysis of two nations. According to the GEC, Zambia's elephant populations decreased from the triple to double digits while the Kafue ecosystem grew by about fifty-five percent. Moreover, the GEC notes that its analysis used the historical data available and present, something that was simply nonexistent in certain regions. The same goes for raw historical data in most of their ecosystems.

While the Great Elephant Census does blame poaching as a major and critical cause of the population decrease, it is important to note that the GEC does also mention other factors. These include the conflicts that can arise between elephants and humans with regards to development and growth.

As a whole it does appear that the Great Elephant Census is one of the most comprehensive studies to date. It and its scientists do admit to not having all the information they want: either due to historical inaccuracies or the fact they did not count forest elephants. However, because of its intense nature, I believe that this census is one of the greatest things to happen to the conservation movement. 

As time goes on, the scientists plan on continuing to conduct the survey regularly in order to monitor the conservation of the African elephants (with future hopes of assessing the destructiveness of poaching and climate change). 

This survey is a key moment in history, a powerful tool for the conservation movements of both African elephants and also all endangered creatures. By raising awareness of the population decreases of African elephants, the GEC brings light to the issues of poaching and climate change. By doing so, there is hope that surveys and censuses like this will bring new fervor to natural conservation movements, bringing hope and new energy to anti-poaching policy reform. 

(Find a related NPR article here!)