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As Africa’s elephant population dwindles, project aims to count them all

The Great Elephant census, an ambitious two-year initiative funded by an American philanthropist for $7 million, aims to count all of the elephants on the continent of Africa in order to save the species through conservation efforts. But as elephant numbers continue dwindle across the continent, due in large part to poaching, researchers -- already faced with a herculean task and countries resistant to join the census -- must first establish how many they are trying to save. NewsHour's Martin Seemungal reports.

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  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Scrambling through the Ethiopian bushlands, a team of conservation biologists, running, to find an elephant. Darted from the air with a tranquilizer earlier, and part of a much bigger discovery.

  • MIKE CHASE:

    We took off from a very small airstrip over this range of hills into this valley and it was paradise like the last frontier and I just could feel we were on the verge of discovering something great and we did. Nearly three thousand elephants, unknown to anybody, tucked away, safe in a very remote corner of Ethiopia.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Considering elephant numbers are dwindling across Africa it is a remarkable find.

    The team fits it with a huge collar so they can keep track of the herd.

    The mission to Ethiopia is part of a plan to count Africa's elephants—that's right—count all the Elephants in Africa.

    It is an ambitious two year project expected to conclude in May. Called The Great Elephant Census the seven million dollar initiative is being funded by American Philanthropist Paul Allen.

    It is led by Chase, he grew up in Botswana- and has dedicated his life to protecting elephants founding a non-profit organization called 'Elephants without Borders'

  • MIKE CHASE:

    How many elephants are on the African continent? And that's a question which nobody can answer with any certainty. And the worlds largest terrestrial animal — the 6 ton animal roaming our continent — and people can't tell you how many are left. They can tell you how many are dying, a hundred elephants a day Africa is losing.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Elephants die of natural causes—old age, disease.

    This young elephant was hunted and killed by a pride of lions—part of the natural cycle of life in Africa.

    But big numbers of elephants are also killed when they come into contact with humans—farmers in particular—they sometimes lose crops to elephants–and so they shoot them.

    And then there is poaching. During the 1980's there were some years when 100,000 elephants were killed for their tusks. Kenya is estimated to have lost 83 percent of its elephant population during that period.

    Iain Douglas Hamilton is a leading authority on elephants. He is based in Nairobi and he says there has been another spike in elephant poaching recently.

  • IAIN DOUGLAS-HAMILTON:

    In 2011, we estimated there were 40,000 elephants illegally killed. If that rate were to continue it would inevitably drive the elephants down because they cannot reproduce fast enough to replace the losses caused by natural mortality and illegal killing for ivory combined.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Hamilton is one of nearly 50 conservationists across Africa supporting the great elephant census.

  • IAIN DOUGLAS HAMILTON:

    You can't fight a war to save something if you don't know how many you are trying to save.

  • MIKE CHASE:

    So to have this foundational information on precisely how many elephants are left will help gauge future conservation efforts.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    It is an enormous challenge—elephants are found in 37 African nations. Populations vary in size. But some countries refused to take part in the survey.

  • MIKE CHASE:

    And that for me has been the most difficult part of the Great Elephant Census to comprehend why people, why countries don't want their elephants counted.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Chase is optimistic many countries will ultimately join the census. In the meantime, he is working hard in the 18 nations that have agreed.

    From South Sudan in the north — pockets of West Africa — through East and Central Africa down to South Africa. And Botswana, his home country, with an estimated population of 100,000 elephants. The largest in Africa.

    Counting is done from the air. A small plane flying low, across the African landscape. The plane flies back and forth in a series of straight lines. Called transect lines, pre-programmed ahead of time using GPS coordinates.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    A typical survey session lasts about four hours, it is tedious, it is mentally exhausting, but its really the best way to count elephants.

  • SPOTTER:

    Look at that herd. Oh my goodness look at that.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Chase is in the front seat recording information. There are 2 spotters in the back.

  • MIKE CHASE:

    There's a tremendous amount of skill that goes into flying an aerial survey. A consistent height. You can't deviate off the transect line. You've got to maintain a speed of 170 kilometres — you go too fast you're going to miss animals.

    Kelly Landen is one of the regular spotters. Originally from Buffalo, New York, now living in Botswana.

  • KELLY LANDEN:

    Well the transect lines are about 15 minutes each in one direction and then on the turn we get a little bit of an eye break. We stretch. We close our eyes and try and get a regroup for a few minutes until we get to the next transect which is actually quite a relief.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    In neighboring South Africa the massive Kruger Park is also home to thousands of elephants. Chase and the team won't have to do any counting here because the South Africans will provide figures from their own aerial surveys.

    Sam Ferreira is an ecologist in Kruger Park well aware of the difficulties of counting elephants from the air.

  • SAM FERREIRA:

    Imagine an elephant stands under a tree. You fly over it. The elephant is there but it's not available for you to be sampled and you can't see it.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    To compensate cameras are mounted on each side of the plane — the spotters constantly take pictures.

    After the flight the photos are downloaded and used to verify what the spotters have reported.

    Using a special program each elephant is highlighted making it much easier to spot those elephants under the trees.

  • KELLY LANDEN:

    This verification helps quite a bit. Especially when you have large herds. It's very difficult when you go by for just a few minutes, so the numbers are really well verified when you count it on the computer.

    Right now, like I said, I missed an elephant on this one.

  • MIKE CHASE:

    It would be extremely difficult if we didn't have this technology available to us to fly aerial surveys — over such a vast scale an area that we're covering.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Wildlife officials with the Botswana government are observing and assisting with the count here. It is indicative of the concern African nations have for elephants.

    Alfred Seonyatseng is a senior wildlife warden.

  • ALFRED SEONYATSENG:

    I think it's going to help all the African countries to know and conserve and to know exactly what the number they have and that they can know how they can conserve their elephants.

  • AMO KEITSILE:

    If we don't intervene it's going to be a problem the elephant will soon disappear.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Chase is encouraged by the response so far. He says that trip to Ethiopia gave him a lot of reasons to be hopeful.

  • MIKE CHASE:

    As soon as a government hears that they have 3,000 elephants tucked away in the southern corner of their country, which they didn't know about, man, that changes things, that gets people excited and that's what we've discovered on the great elephant census.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    And there are many more countries still to be counted…

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