Data-Collecting Planes are Counting Africa's Elephants to Curb Poaching

By Bryan Lufkin on at

Animals like tigers, lions, and elephants are majestic creatures we learn about when we’re kids. But unfortunately, many of those species share another trait: they live on the edge of extinction. One hundred African elephants are killed per day for ivory, but one mapping project is tracking these creatures in hopes of saving them.

There hasn’t been a standardised elephant survey in Africa in 40 years, and we don’t know how many elephants are left. Cue the Great Elephant Census. Kicked off in February 2014, the project is an independent, two-year survey that swoops research planes over Africa to get up-to-date data that tells us where elephants are disappearing and why. This data will equip governments and scientists with a better sense of poaching trends.

PBS breaks down the process: Each day, researchers board tech-laden planes and start flying and snapping photos at consistent speeds and altitudes. GPS-fitted cameras are slapped on the sides of the plane, which help find elephants hiding under trees.

The census hit its half-way point just a few months ago, and so far, nearly 100,000 miles have been surveyed in 11 countries.

Data-Collecting Planes Are Counting Africa's Elephants to Curb Poaching

The important thing here is accuracy. In 2013, for example, a park that had previously boasted 20,000 elephants actually only had 33 living and 55 dead, once Elephants Without Borders carried out an independent count. Let’s call that a gross overestimate.

But there is some good news. So far, the survey’s found that four nations — Botswana, Gabon, Namibia, and Uganda — have actually seen increases in their elephant populations. Thanks to the Census, we can confirm that government involvement and political stability can play a huge role in saving elephants, since those environments are more conductive to greater funding and increased security at preserves. For example, New Scientist says that Uganda saw its African elephant populations increase six times over since the ‘90s, following decades of armed conflict.

The goal is to submit the data for verification and publication in scientific journals by the end of 2015. Hopefully when future generations learn about these awesome animals, they’ll be much more than just dried-up bones in a museum, thanks to projects like these. [Great Elephant Census via New Scientist]

Data-Collecting Planes Are Counting Africa's Elephants to Curb Poaching

Data-Collecting Planes Are Counting Africa's Elephants to Curb Poaching

Images via Great Elephant Census