Aerial Survey Provides Bird’s Eye View of Plight of Elephants in Zambia

Elephant in Zambia. Photo © Kenneth K. Coe
Elephant in Zambia. Photo © Kenneth K. Coe

By Eric T. Schultz, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Zambia and David Banks, Managing Director, The Nature Conservancy Africa

Whether you are floating down the Zambezi River, eye to eye with curious elephants on the shoreline, or flying low over a thunderous herd, observing elephants is an unforgettable experience.

The Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) is conducting aerial surveys of elephants and other large herbivores in three of Zambia’s national parks and neighboring conserved areas. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is facilitating the training of ZAWA ecologists on data collection and organizing the approximately 258 hours of flight time over the course of four weeks.

The results of this survey have implications far beyond Zambia’s borders, especially since this area lies in a region that is considered a stronghold for the African elephant population. Funded by philanthropist Paul G. Allen, this endeavor is part of a continent-wide effort called the Great Elephant Census. This count will be the first pan-African census in over 40 years. Researchers in 20 countries will use a standardized method of data collection to create an up-to-date picture of the status of African elephants. The insights revealed through this survey can help create tailored management plans to more effectively protect elephants for the long term.

The impressions from the survey were not encouraging. On a flight lasting approximately 75 minutes along the banks of the Kafue River, we only spotted four elephants. Even at the height of the mid-day heat, you would expect to see more of these magnificent animals from the air and especially near the river at such a hot time of the year. But even in Zambia’s national parks, like Kafue — where the animals have the protection of dedicated ZAWA employees — elephant numbers are shrinking.

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