(POACHING/ELEPHANTS) NAIROBI — An aerial census of Africa’s elephants is being conducted by a team of 46 scientists who will photograph every elephant herd on the continent.

It is hoped this two year project will provide an accurate count of Africa’s total elephant population, which at the moment is estimated to be between 410,000 and 650,000.

The South African elephant population is exploding. Photo Credit: southafricanelephants.com
A head count of elephants will be conducted throughout Africa in the very near future. Photo Credit: southafricanelephants.com

According to the Guardian:

“For the first year of the two-year project, survey planes will cover land in 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa where up to 90% of Africa’s savannah elephants live. In the second year, researchers will prepare the data. By mid-2015, preliminary results should be available. In addition to distribution and range, the census hopes to identify where populations are increasing, fragmenting, or shrinking, and provide a better understanding of the threats elephants face.”

At the turn of the 20th century, there were an estimated 10 million African elephants left in the wild. That number has dwindled considerably thanks to indiscriminate poaching and habitat loss.

In 2012 alone, figures show that 22,000 African elephants were lost, and if the current trend continues, one-fifth of Africa’s elephant population will be eradicated within the next decade.

A study released in March revealed the population in central Africa alone decreased by 62 percent from 2002 to 2011, but exactly how many African elephants remain is uncertain. Some elephant populations have not been surveyed in over a decade, while no data exists for some areas in Africa.

“Current elephant poaching in Africa remains far too high, and could soon lead to local extinctions if the present killing rates continue. The situation is particularly acute in central Africa – where the estimated poaching rate is twice the continental average,” according to John E Scanlon, Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Africa is not the only place where accurate elephant numbers are necessary. In Vietnam, elephants face a more dire situation with some estimates putting the number of elephants left in the country to as few as 70.

Unlike in Africa, there are no international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) specifically working to save elephants in Vietnam, according to Barney Long, Director of the Species Program at World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Photo Credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
The killing of male Asian elephants for their tusks, makes it impossible for the elephant population to replenish its numbers. Photo Credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

“The situation is extremely grim,” said Long, “they’re right on the edge. And it will take a lot for them to recover. Not only a huge conservation shift but a huge cultural shift as well.”

Cao Thi Ly, head of the Department of Forest Resource and Environment Management (FREM) at Tay Nguyen University in Vietnam, showed that unlike elephants in Africa, Vietnamese elephants live in eight or nine patches of forest throughout the country, and in some provinces, six to ten elephants roam on one piece of land.

Meenakshi Nagendran, a wildlife biologist and Program Officer with the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), said the estimated number of 70 elephants is just that—an estimate.

Vietnam is a “gray hole. Not a black hole but a gray hole. This information is not confirmed by many—a lot of NGOs say there are only 10 to 15 wild elephants left in Vietnam,” according to Nagendran.

Whatever the number, it is clear that preventing the extinction of elephants is becoming a numbers game.

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