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Elephants in Tanzania
Savanna elephant populations are dropping dramatically. (Credit: Great Elephant Census)

A first-of-its-kind census of African savanna elephants reveals that populations have declined by as much as 30 percent over the course of just seven years.

The backer of the Great Elephant Census, Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen, said the findings were “deeply disturbing.” The tally was laid out today at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress in Honolulu.

Allen spent more than $7 million to fund and manage the survey and make the results available online.

“Armed with this knowledge of dramatically declining elephant populations, we share a collective responsibility to take action, and we must all work to ensure the preservation of this iconic species,” Allen said in a statement.

The two-year project took advantage of sightings from the ground and from the air, as well as standardized data collection and verification methods, to come up with a baseline for future surveys. The project’s leaders figure that they counted more than 93 percent of savanna elephant populations across nearly 600,000 square miles of savanna.

The tally came to 352,271 savanna elephants in the 18 countries surveyed. In 15 of those countries, researchers could compare figures from 2014 with figures from 2007 – and that comparison suggested a 30 percent decline during that time period.

The census also suggests that the decline has accelerated to a current rate of 8 percent per year.

Poaching is the primary factor behind the decline. Earlier this year, University of Washington researchers estimated that 50,000 elephants of all types are being killed annually for the illegal ivory trade.

Eighty-four percent of the elephants in the census were sighted in legally protected areas, and the remaining 16 percent were in unprotected areas. But even in some of the protected parks, researchers sighted high numbers of elephant carcasses.

Unexpectedly large declines were registered in Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania. The populations in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, northern Cameroon and southwest Zambia were so small as to be close to local extinction.

Savanna elephant population trends
This map shows elephant population trends in the countries surveyed by the Great Elephant Census, based on census data and comparable studies over the past 10 years. Red landscapes indicate a decline of more than 5 percent per year. Orange stands for a 2 to 5 percent yearly decline, yellow for declines or increases of less than 2 percent, pale green for a 2 to 5 percent annual increase, and dark green for an annual increase exceeding 5 percent. (Credit: Great Elephant Survey)

In contrast, elephant populations are stable or slightly increasing in South Africa and Uganda, parts of Malawi and Kenya, and in the W-Arli-Pendjari conservation complex that spans parts of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso. That complex now harbors the only large elephant population in West Africa, sparking a call from the census’ researchers to boost conservation measures there.

To conduct the Great Elephant Census, a team from Allen’s Vulcan Inc. collaborated with several non-governmental organizations, led by Elephants Without Borders. The effort involved more than 90 scientists, plus dozens of conservationists and volunteers.

The principal investigator for the Great Elephant Census is Mike Chase, director and founder of Elephants Without Borders. He has compared elephants to “living dinosaurs.”

“If we can’t save the African elephant, what is the hope of conserving the rest of Africa’s wildlife?” Chase said today. “I am hopeful that, with the right tools, research, conservation efforts and political will, we can help conserve elephants for decades to come.”

Vulcan is now making plans for a census of Africa’s forest elephants, which are also facing threats from poaching. Vulcan’s developers have also created a visual data platform that provides real-time intelligence for protected management areas. The tracking system is being tested in Kenya.

In conjunction with the elephant project, Allen’s Vulcan Productions is releasing two films this year: “The Ivory Game,” a feature-length documentary about ivory trafficking; and “Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale,” about an elephant born into a rescue camp in Botswana.

The results of the census are laid out in a research paper published by PeerJ, titled “Continent-Wide Survey Reveals Massive Decline in African Savannah Elephants.” Chase and 13 other researchers are co-authors. For more about the census, check out the project’s final report as well as the African Elephant Atlas and updates via Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Paper.li.

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