Counting Elephants in the Selous

By Frank Pope, Save the Elephants COO

Over the last several years, horror stories have been mounting about the scale of the slaughter of elephants in Tanzania. The Selous National Reserve is home to one of the most important elephant populations in Africa. Until recently, it was the second biggest population on the continent after that in Botswana. What the exact status is now no one knows.

Accurate knowledge of elephant numbers is the foundation on which all efforts to secure a future for the species depends. Without it, there is no way to know if elephants are truly in trouble and, if so, how bad the problem is. Armed with solid data, governments and inter-governmental organizations like the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are able to act.

But counting elephants is no easy business. Their vast ranges and fast movements make meticulous planning crucial, and if a sample rather than the total is to be counted (as must be done in an area as large as the Selous), the technique used must be rigorous and transparent. As a result of the difficulties, no consistent counts have been conducted in the Selous since the poaching surge began.

A New Elephant Count

The Tanzanian government has now decided to remedy this. On August 26th the Tanzanian Government Research institute brought together a group of experts to begin planning a count. Save the Elephant’s Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Festus Ihwagi attended the meeting.

The importance of this count is hard to overstate. In 1976 there were an estimated 109,000 elephants in the reserve and it was the largest elephant population known in Africa. A decade later on half of the elephants remained, and in 1991 the population reached an all-time low of approximately 20,000. After the international ivory ban in 1989 numbers began to recover, but since then there has been an apparent free-for-all. Despite the fears, no one has been able to quantify the scale of the slaughter.

We await the results of the count, and are keeping our fingers crossed that the situation is not as bad as feared.