Zambezi Large Mammal Survey Finds Elephant Populations Increasing

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You would think elephants would be relatively easy to count. After all, they are the largest terrestrial mammal on earth. But it gets complicated when their range crosses three national boundaries and the elephants are constantly on the move.

Until last year, no one had been able to get an accurate count in AWF's Zambezi Heartland. But in the last half of 2003, the first ever transboundary large mammal aerial survey took place in this Heartland. The survey was conducted at the same time across all areas of the Heartland using standard census methods, an approach that minimized the chance of double counting in cases where elephants move across borders.

AWF facilitated this collaborative effort among the Zambia Wildlife Authority, Zimbabwe's Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, and the Mozambican Tete Province Department of Tourism. A high level of commitment was demonstrated by all parties, particularly in seeking the necessary permission for cross-border flights.

This is the first time we have accurate data for all areas of the Heartland, regardless of political boundaries. This is especially important for the elephant population that uses the entire Heartland.

Zimbabwe has by far the largest percent of the range (63%) and the largest population estimate of elephants with 19,646. Zambia has an intermediate size portion of the range (27%) that has a population estimate of 1,423, a 137% increase from the estimated figure of 600 elephants made in 2002 (CITES, 2002). Mozambique makes up just 10% of the range and has 1,717 elephants, a 41% increase from the 1,217 estimate from the year 2000 census. On a landscape level, the entire Heartland has had an 8% increase in population from an estimated 21,114 in 2001 to 22,826 elephants in the latest survey.

While the elephant population in Zimbabwe is increasing steadily, the populations in Zambia and Mozambique show dramatic increases. This trend can be attributed to the consistency in census methodology used during the AWF facilitated transboundary survey as well as improved wildlife management interventions on the ground.

As a result of this survey, conservation priorities have been determined. One is for transboundary law enforcement to help protect the increasingly stable Heartland elephant population from poaching. In addition, the growth of populations in Zambia and Mozambique must be sustained in cooperation with the national wildlife authorities and local government.