Translating Survey Findings Into Effective Elephant Protection Results


Paul Elkan and Simon Hedges, National Geographic

Date Published


See link for photos.

The results of the ambitious, two-year-long Great Elephant Census (GEC) of the African continent’s savannah elephant populations were released in late August. The GEC team estimated a population of 352,271 savannah elephants in survey sites in 18 countries. Best estimates suggest savannah elephant populations have decreased by 144,000 from 2007 to 2014 and we are losing roughly 8 percent per year continent-wide – chiefly due to poaching for ivory.

While shocking, the overall results of the GEC should not be that surprising to conservationists.  Given our firsthand knowledge of the elephant poaching situations in many of the countries where we work, we were not expecting positive findings for most areas. There are, however, several important aspects to the GEC results that we believe deserve further attention if Governments and conservationists are to understand the implications of the new data and translate this information into improved elephant protection results.

The GEC was funded by Paul Allen and implemented by almost 90 scientists from conservation NGOs and government wildlife departments and led overall by Elephants Without Borders. WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) was a key partner in the GEC and led the aerial surveys, together government partners, in 8 of the 18 countries (Mozambique, Uganda, Virunga-DRC, Cameroon, Burkina Faso-Benin-Niger, and Mali), and we are still completing surveys of South Sudan and Central African Republic.

While the massive population declines in Tanzania and Mozambique constitute a crisis and require a redoubling of protection efforts, the surveys also demonstrate that elephants in Mali, Cameroon, Chad, and areas of Ethiopia face local extinction if effective protection is not immediately mobilized.  The survey of Burkina Faso-Benin-Niger transboundary area documented an increasing elephant population, but it also revealed an alarming poaching crisis which must be addressed.  The Cameroon survey quantified the impact of the tragic elephant massacres of recent years and alarmingly found evidence that the regional security threat continues.

While approximately 84 percent of the African savannah elephants counted in the GEC occurred in protected areas, the relative number of elephant carcasses observed during the surveys were not significantly different in protected and unprotected areas.  Seasonal factors and poaching pressures also cause elephants to range in and out of protected areas and across landscapes.  The clear message from the survey results is that many protected areas are failing to adequately shield elephants from poaching.  In Uganda protected area authorities seem to be effectively protecting elephants in Murchison and Kidepo Parks.  However, poaching remains a serious problem in Queen Elizabeth, and elephants in neighboring Virunga Park, DRC have been nearly eliminated.

The day before the GEC savannah elephant survey results were released, a new paper by WCS’s Andrea Turkalo and colleagues was released regarding forest elephants. Based on Andrea’s 23 years observing individual forest elephants at the Dzanga Bai clearing in the Central African Republic, Turkalo and colleagues found that forest elephants, whose population declined by a staggering 65 percent from 2002 through 2013, would take nearly a century to recover based on their slow reproductive rate.

So should we despair? No, instead the results of the GEC and new forest elephant study should be a call to arms for the global conservation community to redouble efforts to protect elephants at key sites across Africa and very significantly reduce trafficking in and demand for ivory.

The GEC showed that important elephant populations persist in several key range areas that historically supported large numbers of elephants – so there is still much to fight for in the battle to save Africa’s elephants.  Fortunately, there are some signs of hope – both in sites covered by the GEC and other elephant sites.  Where site management levels are robust and the necessary resources, management systems, and training are available, elephant numbers have stabilized or increased. We know this from our work in Nouabale-Ndoki in Congo, African Parks Network’s work in Zakouma, Chad, and Northern Rangelands Trust community conservancies in northern Kenya.

Nevertheless, there are still too few examples of site-based law enforcement having the desired effects of securing elephant populations and allowing them to recover. Enforcement efforts need to be better funded and, crucially, better managed in many places, with attention to transparency and anti-corruption programs. Moreover, local enforcement teams must work in cooperation with local communities as true partners in the protection effort.  It needs to be better appreciated, too, that securing elephant populations can improve security for both local people and wildlife.

In addition to site-based anti-poaching efforts, there needs to be much improved anti-trafficking efforts throughout the illegal trade chain. A number of anti-trafficking initiatives employing local intelligence efforts are starting to yield results in some countries in Africa. These efforts can be enhanced by partnerships that build capacity, encourage transparency, and fight corruption. There need to be far more prosecutions of traffickers and other king-pins, with stern penalties handed down to those convicted, together with efforts to combat corruption at all levels of the chain.

Both the GEC results for Africa’s savannah elephants and the new forest elephant study have already proved helpful in driving global action to protect elephants such as the ivory ban motion adopted at the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress and the Resolution calling for closure of domestic ivory markets adopted at CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg, South Africa, earlier this month.

But crucially, all remaining legal domestic markets for ivory across the world need to be shut as soon as possible to reduce opportunities for selling illegal ivory under the cover of a legal trade.  The US and France have very helpfully done just that and, critically, both China and Hong Kong SAR have committed to closing their domestic ivory markets.

Given the significance of these two very large markets for legal and illegal ivory (sold under cover of the legal trade) as drivers of elephant poaching, their closure could have a ‘game-changing’ effect in Africa – but these bans must be implemented immediately.

Finally, reducing the demand for ivory, particularly in China, is paramount. Supply side measures are essential but insufficient; elephants will never be safe until demand for ivory is eliminated.  Awareness-raising campaigns using but not limited to social media are a key element in demand reduction strategies but raising awareness is also insufficient; demand reduction campaigns also need to be linked to and effect behavioral change.


Dr. Paul Elkan is a senior conservationist with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) who has been working for elephant conservation in the savannas and forests of African for the past 26 years. Dr. Simon Hedges currently serves as WCS Elephant Coordinator/Ivory Trade Policy Analyst.