Microsoft Billionaire Funds Pan-African Aerial Census

Date Published

One of the founders of Microsoft, Paul Allen, has pledged to fund an Africa-wide aerial survey to establish how many elephants remain on the continent.

Many indicators show elephant populations across Africa plummeting, and many estimates are out of date. Such uncertainty makes it hard to measure the severity of the crisis and often disasters are recorded only long after the event.  Although most populations are declining some are not.  Ultimately it is facts, given credibility by a science that stimulate united international action.

The survey techniques used to count elephants vary across Africa and have improved over time. This makes comparisons between populations and analysis of trends difficult, but when a single survey method is used, some of these complications are avoided.

The first pan-African elephant census was completed in 1979 by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants (STE). It estimated total elephant numbers 1.3 million.  Ten years later the estimate had fallen to 600,000. Following the ivory ban in 1989, most Savannah populations recovered but Central African forest elephants populations crashed. 2009 was a teething point after which most elephant populations went into decline with a steeply increasing illegal killing for ivory.

The new Pan-African Survey will be conducted by Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders (EWB).  Before moving to Botswana, EWB’s base, Mike spent two weeks at the Save the Elephants research centre in Samburu learning the intricacies of elephant tracking.

The survey will require three fixed-wing planes and two helicopters doing tight transects in 13 elephant-range countries during the 2014 dry season. The aim will be to find where elephants are on the continent, where they’re increasing or declining and what threats they face. The cost will be around $8 million.

A herd of Elephants at the Maasai Mara game reserve

‘I’m honoured that his agreement to support the survey was instantaneous,’ said EWB director Mike Chase. ‘An eco-philanthropist like Paul knows what’s at stake can identify with our vision because he visits Africa twice a year… He and his sister, Jody, quietly fund so much conservation in Africa that isn’t generally known about. Their personal investment in the continent is amazing.’

‘This is the bleakest time for the elephants,’ said Allen in support of the survey. ‘The statistics on the plight of Africa’s elephants is daunting. I’m devoted to supporting new endeavours which provide meaningful science to help reverse this decline and to reduce the variability in elephant population statistics.”

The new Pan-African Survey is a badly-needed shot in the arm for the continent’s elephants. Big political decisions have to be based on solid data. Forty years ago, when elephants last faced such a crisis, accurate population estimates played a significant role in bringing change,” said Dr. Douglas-Hamilton, who, along with other experts, will help advise the project.

Elephants once roamed across 46 African countries, but are now limited to 35. In 20 of those, populations number less than 1 000. Their range area has been reduced to 15 per cent of Africa’s total surface. This decline has been caused by habitat encroachment, increased human population densities, agricultural development, deforestation and infrastructure development as well as poaching.