As of March 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed African savanna elephants as endangered and African forest elephants as critically endangered. The decrease of African elephants is due to continued illegal poaching and habitat loss, which leads to human and elephant conflict.
Without data about elephant populations, researchers would not be able to conclude this information and raise awareness about saving elephants. But, have you ever wondered how researchers count elephants in the wild? What kind of survey strategies do they use? And why should we study elephants?
Here is some insight into the importance of counting elephant populations and the strategies used to count the largest land mammals.
Why should we study elephants and their populations?
Elephants play a critical role in their ecosystems. These large mammals are considered the gardeners and engineers of their habitats. Losing them forever would be damaging to Africa's and Asia’s ecosystems.
That is why wildlife conservationists have taken the incentive to count the population of wild elephants over the years. Counting elephants creates accurate data about elephant population numbers that can help conservationists make informed conservation management plans.
The Great Elephant Census
The exact number of African elephants was unknown for many years. Wildlife conservationists teamed up and conducted what is known as the Great Elephant Census. This census aims to get an accurate and updated number of elephants in Africa to help make informed elephant conservation and wildlife management decisions.
286 researchers participated by flying over elephant habitats counting elephants and elephant carcasses. It took nearly three years to complete. Researchers concluded that there was a 30 percent decline of African savannah elephant populations in 15 of the 18 African countries surveyed from the census.
Strategies used to count elephant populations
How do you count something that is larger than you? In the air, of course. One preferred way for researchers to count elephants is through aerial surveys. These surveys make it easier to count elephant populations and allow them to go into inaccessible areas.
There are some downsides to aerial surveys, including lack of visibility in forests and inaccurate counting. Using these aerial surveys is only suitable for relatively flatlands, so it would not be useful for surveying African forest elephants. Errors may also occur in data collection because elephant calves may remain hidden, and humans may double-count populations.
How do you count an elephant that lives in the dense forests? Through sound! Scientists are using acoustic surveys to count African forest elephant populations. Sounds are monitored through recorders. This kind of survey is more precise because data is automatically recorded without the need of humans - reducing human bias. However, downsides to acoustic are the training, equipment and lack of additional information collected, such as gender, age and size.
Thanks to the evolution of technology, artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to survey elephants. Researchers at the University of Oxford developed a new form of survey that uses AI technology and satellite imagery. Satellites from space take images of elephant habitats, and then a computer algorithm identifies the elephants. This kind of survey helps get a more accurate count of elephants. Researchers have found it to be just as accurate as a survey done by a human.
Support elephant conservation efforts
Why should we study elephants? Maintaining accurate data on elephant populations is key to saving elephants. At For Elephants, we work alongside Elephants Alive to enrich their data about elephant movements. This data collected helps us make informed decisions about elephants in the wild and zoos. To support our research, join the “Herd of Heroes.” You can make a monthly donation that supports our research. Register down below!