“Fifteen elephants right!” ecologist Mike Chase shouts above the roar of the single-engine Cessna. The plane swoops low over the herd of gray bodies as they wade single-file across the floodplain below.
The yearlong project began in February and encompasses 18 countriesâ€”the first pan-African aerial survey of savanna elephants since the 1970s. (Forest elephants, concentrated in central and West Africa, aren’t part of the census because they’re mostly invisible from the air.)
Funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen, the census will fill an urgent need, says Chase, who is founder and lead researcher for the project. “If we don’t know how many are left on the continent,” Chase asks, “how can we plan for the future? What is the baseline? Where do we focus our attention? Where does donor money need to be allocated?
“The truth is that the current population of elephants in Africa remains unknown,” he says. “The last surveys in some areas were done 15 to 20 years ago.”
Founder of the Botswana-based nonprofit Elephants Without Borders, Chase has spent the past 15 years collecting unprecedented data on the status of elephants and other wildlife in Botswana, identifying cross-border elephant corridors, and discovering new migration routes.
So far, overflights of two of the 18 targeted countries have been completed, and surveys are under way in ten others.