As the slaughter of Africa’s elephants continues for their ivory, the Great Elephant Census (GEC), a landmark, continent-wide aerial count of the survivors, has just been completed for another country: Angola.
According to ecologist and lead survey investigator Mike Chase, when the Angolan overflights began, in October 2015, he was hopeful that the country—once a bastion for elephants—had escaped the killings that have convulsed the rest of the continent. Instead, he says, the news was grim: The rate of elephant poaching in Angola is among the highest in Africa.
Funded by philanthropist Paul G. Allen and managed by his company Vulcan, Inc., the GEC is the first standardized aerial survey of savanna elephants—and one of the largest comprehensive animal surveys in Africa’s history. Since its launch, in February 2014, researchers have made transect flights covering nearly 400,000 square miles (one million square kilometers) of elephant range. Populations in 18 nations have been assessed, with two more—South Sudan and the Central African Republic—now under way.
Some of the results have been seismic, including that Tanzania lost 60 percent of its elephants between 2009 and 2015 and that Mozambique saw a 48 percent loss of its elephants in just five recent years.
In addition to his lead role in the GEC, Chase is the founder of the Botswana-based organization Elephants Without Borders, a group that monitors elephant behavior and migratory habits in the region. Speaking with Christina Russo from his home in Kasane, Botswana, he discusses the Angolan results, the significance of the GEC, and how wildlife conservation is failing elephants.
When did you get a sense that Angola's elephants were in serious trouble?
The first day. The fact that there were four elephants dead in close proximity with each other. Some had died in the sternal position, which means they’re on their knees, which suggests a brain shot and immediate death. And for many others, their faces had been hacked open and tusks removed. Elephants don’t die naturally in such close proximity to each other.
I had hoped it would be an anomaly, but it repeated itself.
Before Angola’s civil war, which took place from 1975 to 2002, the country was thought to be home to 200,000 elephants, possibly the highest number in Africa. Then in the ’80s reports emerged that Angolan military groups were using ivory to pay for arms and food and that 100,000 elephants may have been killed. Tell us about the elephant study you did after the war.
I started working in Angola in 2003 as part of my Ph.D., documenting this repopulation of elephants after the war. Our survey that year estimated just 350 elephants, and we were the first to document that elephants were moving from Botswana through Namibia and then back into Angola.
This homecoming of elephants in southeast Angola, I believe, was one of the greatest conservation success stories in the past 50 years. Our aerial surveys between 2003 and 2005 confirmed that elephants were re-colonizing Angola where civil war, landmines, and poaching had evicted them decades before.
Your most recent GEC study shows that Angola has 3,395 elephants. Did you expect such a low number?
It would be more accurate to say there are some 3,400 in southern Angola, because we were just surveying the largest stronghold of elephants in Angola, which is in the Luiana Partial Reserve along the Cuando, Cuito, and Cubango Rivers.
It was a complete shock. Given the high rates that elephants were moving out of Botswana, I expected to see a thriving population—many more elephants. I thought Angola would be one of those last sanctuaries that escaped elephant poaching.
Angola is losing 10 percent of its elephants each year, a higher mortality rate than any other country on the GEC. This indicates the poaching problem is among the most severe in Africa right now. To see your PhD study species being decimated at a rate of 10 percent each year was one of the most disheartening results of the GEC because I took great responsibility in seeing the safe return of elephants to Angola after the civil war. But their return has not been safe.
Our report alludes to rather healthy other populations: 11,000 buffalo, 3,000 sable, eland—animals Angola never thought they had. This is really monumental foundation information to base conservation decisions on. One of the major goals of the GEC is to empower governments to save what they have left. In the case of Angola, I hope they were shocked out of apathy.
Angola has the ability to provide elephants with the largest elephant range remaining in Africa and comparable to that of Botswana and Tanzania. This could be the most important contribution to saving elephants because in addition to the plague of elephant poaching across Africa, we cannot lose sight of an equally alarming threat to elephants—habitat loss. This is an opportunity that no longer exists in most elephant range states.
Why are traffickers and poachers targeting Angola now?
There is nothing left for poachers to identify in southwest Zambia, which is on the eastern border of Angola. If you look to Namibia, Namibia is relatively well enforced. Certainly Botswana’s government has a zero poaching tolerance. And the poachers know that Angola currently has limited capacity to manage its wildlife.
The largest herd of elephants on the Great Elephant Census was seen in Angola, nearly 550 elephants. And that’s a sign of trauma and stress, when family groups amalgamate into a mega-herd for safety. Also, these animals are now becoming nocturnal. They are so persecuted they have to live under the cover of darkness. We’re sentencing elephants to living in small, unviable, and dysfunctional populations with broken social systems.
You shared the GEC survey with the Angola government. What was the response?
It was one of genuine concern at the rate of elephant poaching. While they were aware elephants were being poached, they were not aware of the magnitude. They vowed to do everything that they could through anti-poaching control to address this concern.
I believe the Angolans didn’t know they had a poaching problem—they have no idea what wildlife heritage is still left here. How can you protect something if you don’t know how many you have, and what the challenges are to their survival?
A recent National Geographic story highlighted the slaughter of elephants in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), straddling Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Angola. Since elephants move across borders, doesn't this show that nations need to work together?
I hope with the results of this survey Angola’s wildlife conservation will receive urgent attention. These elephants move across international borders. The KAZA are custodians of a transboundary elephant population. Considering that this is the last stronghold, that nearly 60 percent of Africa's elephants are found within KAZA, the governments should be working together to safeguard their future.
Is it accurate to say they haven’t been?
Yes. And they would say they haven't until now because they didn't understand the enormity of the problem. Elephants are going into northern Botswana, under threat to be the next killing fields. When you look at poaching, Botswana is one of the most heavily impacted countries when we talk about poaching because we are bearing the brunt of it. Elephants are seeking refuge in increasing numbers in northern Botswana and placing huge responsibility on our government to manage and conserve numbers that wouldn't naturally be occurring within our borders.
As the GEC is nearly complete, can you say how many savanna elephants Africa has now?
Final estimates cannot be made public. But when you add all the numbers together, the final estimate is shocking. We’re losing one of the world's most charismatic herbivores. Local populations are going extinct, and if we don't address the immediate threat of poaching, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against these animals.
I started the GEC with such a romantic notion and great hope and a sense that in some small measure I could secure a future for [elephants]. But my view of elephant conservation is ...
Yes. I believe we are failing elephants. Absolutely. I believe we’re failing elephants because I know Africans, with help from friends, have the capacity and the capability to solve the poaching crisis.
When you consider all the international summits devoted to the trade and the elephants being hoisted as a symbol of addressing the trade, and the rise of NGOs, and the millions of dollars that have been poured into anti-poaching and the burning of 150 tons of ivory … when you consider that, the world's response still hasn't in any way slowed the rate of killing. We still continue to lose an elephant every 15 minutes. Ninety-six elephants are still being killed every day. Why?
While there are a number of noble attempts to help elephants, these are not in themselves reducing the rate of poaching. But without them the rate might be much worse. My opinion is that it’s easier to kill an elephant than it is to save one. Poachers act with impunity unhindered by abiding by any laws, while researchers are stifled by bureaucracy. Given the urgency of the crisis, governments must provide conservationists with the support they need to make a difference in our quest to save the African elephant.
When we announced the Great Elephant Census, I was taken aside and told not only was I insane but a survey of such magnitude would be impossible. We all knew how difficult it was to navigate government bureaucracies and to unite dozens of wildlife organizations and biologists in a shared mission. To fly an independent survey of elephants on a pan-African scale, with full transparency and strict scientific standards—it seemed like lunacy.
However I couldn’t share their doubts. There was just too much at stake. Within a two-year period we’ve successfully completed the GEC, to date the largest and most accurate animal survey in Africa.
Do you plan to survey Angola again in the near future?
Aerial surveys gauge the success of conservation efforts. I’m confident a powerful story of hope can arise from these depressing findings. I hope the 3,400 elephants we counted last year will grow to 6,000 elephants. Future surveys are important to show that elephants are secure again, and recovering.
I’m a stubborn optimist. I don’t want to spend my life sharing depressing statistics and fighting a losing battle for elephants.
Christina Russo is a freelance writer who has reported on animal issues for more than a decade. Follow her on Twitter.