The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s four aerial surveillance aircraft returned from a four and a half day intensive wildlife aerial count over the Tsavo ecosystem, covering a huge expanse of country that comprises the Tsavo elephants’ range - 48,656 sq. Kms. in extent (twice the size of the Park proper). The Tsavo Elephant range encompasses Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania, (abutting Tsavo West), Tsavo West and East National Parks, the Chyulu Hills, South Kitui National Reserve and adjacent areas which include the Taita/Taveta ranches as well as the Mackinnon road area in Kwale district.
On the 5th February 2014, a total of fifteen aircraft took to the skies in an attempt to accurately establish the number of elephants within the Tsavo ecosystem, in view of the current poaching for ivory trend. During this process other large mammals seen from the air were recorded as well – rhinos, buffaloes, zebra, giraffe, eland, and wild dogs.
Before the days that aircraft were available, it was only possible to estimate the number of elephants in the Park, and these estimates reach as far back as the fifties, soon after the Park came into being in l949.
In 1962 the first aerial census on the elephant population in the Tsavo Ecosystem, under the Royal National Parks of Kenya, revealed a total count of 15,603 elephants.
Kenya attained Independence from Britain in l963, and the Royal National Parks of Kenya became Kenya National Parks. A further census in 1965 under Kenya National Parks showed an increase in the elephant population to 20,300 elephants which continued to grow and by 1972 totaled 25,268 in number.
The 1973 count showed a drop in elephant numbers 22,974; this was undertaken to assess the effect of the severe drought period which ravaged the region.
In l976 the Kenya National Parks and their Board of Trustees was abolished and the Kenya Government amalgamated what was by then The Kenya National Parks with the Government Game Department to form The Wildlife Conservation and Management Department.
No other censuses were done until 15 years later in 1988, under the Wildlife and Conservation Management Department. This revealed a startling figure of only 5,363 elephants remaining in Tsavo.
The poaching holocaust of the late l970’s and l980’s had decimated Tsavo’s population. In l989 Dr. Richard Leakey under the Moi government disbanded The Wildlife Conservation & Management Department replacing it with The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the same year an International Ban on Ivory sales was implemented.
KWS conducted their first census in 1999 which showed a recovery of the Tsavo population with a total count of 9,447 elephants. Subsequent counts showed a steady rise in the elephant population with a count of 12,573 in 2011.
During the 2014 Tsavo Elephant Count each aircraft spent on average 7 – 10 hours per day flying the 66 Blocks that made up the 48,656 sq. km. ecosystem, taking to the skies at 6.30 a.m. and landing just before sunset, having had to refuel at lest twice during each day’s flying.
For this 2014 aerial census organised by KWS the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust donated l8,000 litres of aviation fuel for this extremely important and necessary task.
However, this most recent census once again showed a decline in the elephant population of Tsavo which has reduced to approximately 11,076 elephants. This aerial wildlife count has been conducted during a period of heightened poaching activity within the Tsavo Conservation Area, (home to Kenya’s single largest population of elephants), and as such the country’s single most important elephant refuge. Tsavo holds the key to the survival of elephants in a country where the mounting human population is making more demands on the land, occupying fertile areas once utilized by elephants where they come into conflict with human activities and where the Elephants are always the losers.
In 2007 and 2008 the CITES Convention to which 178 countries were signatories and which regulates the trade of endangered species, allowed China to join Japan as an authorized buyer of the so-called legal Southern African Stockpiles. This triggered the current poaching pandemic, driven by the Far East. The mounting demand pushed up the price paid to the Poacher in Africa, who killed the elephant, a thousand fold with up until now meagre derisory punishments meted out by Magistrates contributed to the death toll.
Other factors besides the current unsustainable level of poaching threaten the survival of Africa’s iconic Elephants, who are key to the survival of many other species as well. Global Warming is resulting in more frequent droughts and disturbed weather patterns that will inevitably impact the natural world, and especially the Elephants who need the quantity and variation of vegetation in order to survive. Other challenges also need addressing such as the bushmeat trade and the degradation of the Protected Areas through the illegal intrusion of domestic livestock, charcoal burning, logging of hardwoods and the threat of mineral extraction posed by the presence of Chinese entrepreneurs.
Tanzania’s Selous National Reserve once held the greatest population of elephants in the entire East African region, numbering over l00,000, but today only some 13,000 remain. The Forest Elephants of Central Africa are already nearing extinction and many previous Elephant Range States now have no elephants left, and all due to the appetite for ivory in the Far East, and particularly in China. Time is not on the side of the Elephants, but at least the world has woken up to that fact, and hopefully will now do something about it. Here in Kenya much more stringent punishments have been enacted into law for poaching offences against both Elephants and Rhinos.