Authorities struggle to manage human-wildlife conflict

While the world is grappled with devising efforts to prevent the extinction of elephants, Namibia has a different story to tell with its growing elephant population wreaking havoc within local communities over the years.

19 April 2021 | Environment

ELLANIE SMIT

WINDHOEK



While the African savanna elephant was recently reclassified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Namibia maintains that it has a healthy elephant population throughout the country.

The African savannah elephant was previously listed as vulnerable, and according to recent assessments, the population decreased by at least 60% in the past 50 years across the continent.

It is estimated that Namibia has about 24 000 elephants, with an annual population growth rate of 5.3%. This is according to a report from the Namibian Chamber of Environment authored by environmentalist Gail Thompson.

The report is based on interviews with Debbie Gibson, a key team member who plans and co-supervises aerial surveys in Namibia; Colin Craig, who has been involved in standardising aerial surveys in Namibia since 1994; and Kenneth /Uiseb, deputy director of wildlife monitoring and research at the environment ministry.



Monitoring

According to the report, biologists and conservation managers are rarely able to count all of the animals in their area of interest with 100% accuracy, so the more realistic option is to count the animals in a sample of the area and use statistical methods to estimate the population for the whole area.

The report points out that even with all the detailed planning, experience and analysis, one aerial survey is not particularly useful on its own.

“Scientific wildlife monitoring of all kinds only becomes useful when surveys are repeated many times using the same or very similar methods. While trying to get extremely precise numbers of elephants ranging over huge areas in northern Namibia is nearly impossible, repeat surveys can be used to show a trend over time.”

Trends are especially important in conservation, because they tell if the population is healthy and growing, or under severe threat and declining, the report says.

The report further tackles the issue on why Namibia “refused” to take part in the Great Elephant Census (GEC) in 2014 to 2015.

Namibia's aerial surveys were conducted at the same time as the GEC and were coordinated with the CEC's Botswana survey of 2014 and Zambian survey of 2015

“Not only were the data collected the same way, but all of this information was sent to the centralised African Elephant Database manged by the IUCN's African Specialised Group.”

Furthermore, a team of independent experts from this Specialist Group reviewed all of the results, which included Namibia's, and collated it for the 2016 African Elephant Status Report which is available for the public. “For many countries that do not have the resources to fund their own surveys, Vulcan's support was gratefully received and the conditions were accepted. We had no need for external funding and consequently saw no reason to send our raw data to the GEC team for analysis that we could do ourselves,” he was quoted as saying.



Estimates

According to the report, the 2019 estimate for the Khaudum survey was 7 999 ± 3 028 and the estimate for Zambezi was 12 008 ± 2 598. The 2015 estimate from Etosha was 2 911 ± 697, while the 2016 north-west estimate was 1 173 ± 681.

“If we assume that elephant numbers have not changed in these latter populations between 2015 and 2019 (it is more likely that they have grown slightly), we can conservatively estimate the whole Namibian elephant population at 24 091 ± 4 107 in 2019,” according to the report.

Aerial surveys were completed in the four key elephant areas in 1995, 1998, 2004-05, 2011 and 2015-16, thus providing nationwide estimates for each of these points in time, indicating an annual growth rate of 5.36%.

Aerial surveys are always done in the late dry season (September/October), which indicates the part of the elephant population that usually spends the dry season in Namibia is increasing.

The environment ministry has conducted aerial transect surveys since 1979.

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