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Five Southern African Countries Kick-Start Elephant Census

FILE - An elephant herd browses inside the Chobe National Park, northern Botswana. (Mqondisi Dube/VOA)
FILE - An elephant herd browses inside the Chobe National Park, northern Botswana. (Mqondisi Dube/VOA)

Five southern African countries, with more than half the continent's elephants, are conducting a first-ever aerial census to determine the elephant population and how to protect it.

Light aircraft will fly simultaneously across the plains of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe — in a conservation area known as the Kavango-Zambezi Trans-frontier Conservation Area (KAZA) — in an exercise that will run until October 20.

KAZA is home to an estimated 220,000 elephants, and the five countries are keen to know the exact figures and the animals' distribution patterns.

More than 130,000 of the animals are found in Botswana, which has the world's largest elephant population.

Botswana's National Parks and Wildlife director, Kabelo Senyatso, said the population count will be key in the management of the elephants.

The data primarily will be used to guide decision-making by the five partner states, Senyatso said, including land-use planning, managing human-elephant conflict, hunting, and tourism.

Senyatso said the exercise is critical for a region with a high number of trans-boundary elephants.

"It is important that as managers of the resource, we have a clear understanding of where they are and how they are distributed across the landscape," Senyatso said. "It is an exciting project, the first of its kind. We expect the data on the patterns to be analyzed starting early 2023 such that by quarter one of 2023, we would already be having preliminary data that we can share with the public and for our decision-making."

KAZA's executive director, Nyambe Nyambe, said the elephant count will determine a scientific approach to the management of the elephant populations.

"It is highly anticipated that it will generate science-based information on the population distribution and other factors and is a reaffirmation of the KAZA partner states' commitment to the joint pursuit of science-led conservation supported by accurate and reliable data," Nyambe said. "The results from this survey will become the cornerstone for the long-term protection and management of Africa's largest trans-boundary elephant population."

Botswana-based conservationist Map Ives said revealing the elephant migration patterns across the five countries' borders is key.

"We hope to see what the results come up with," Ives said. "What we will be interested in seeing is not only how many elephants there are but the distribution, therefore, and what the likelihood of those elephants moving between countries is. We know that this population is one single contiguous population."

While elephant populations are increasing in the KAZA region, elsewhere on the African continent the numbers are decreasing due to loss of habitat and poaching.