Nature today | Large-scale elephant census starts in the Kavango-Zambezi African nature reserve

After months of careful planning and preparation and successful training of the people who will count, the first planes recently took off in Zimbabwe to start the great KAZA Elephant study. In the coming months, the many elephants in the 520,000 square kilometer transboundary Kavango-Zambezi (KAZA) will be systematically counted.

Elephant recognition software tested

The count has now also started in Kafue, Zambia, with aircraft on which cameras have also been mounted. In addition to counting the people in the planes, a new method is also being tested, where high-resolution cameras make recordings and elephant recognition software is used to see if this kind of counting can be done digitally and automatically. This is to be able to perform large counts faster and easier in the future.
It is expected to take three weeks to complete the census in Zimbabwe’s northwestern Matabeleland before crossing to Botswana, where flights are expected to begin in mid-October 2022. All the while the headquarters of investigative operations in Kasane in Botswana in full operation.

How many elephants and where are they going?

According to the latest estimates, 220,000 elephants live in the vast KAZA landscape. That’s more than half of Africa’s remaining savanna elephants – a species listed as ‘threatened’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The purpose of the survey is to determine the number of elephants and their seasonal distribution, and to count the number of elephant carcasses and other large herbivores – such as giraffes and buffaloes as well as cattle – in KAZA. The results of the research will help to create more coordinated policies to manage the world’s largest contiguous elephant population and to better prevent human-elephant conflicts. The results are expected during 2023.

Experience and expertise

The survey is a joint and coordinated effort by the KAZA partner countries Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Due to the large scale of the study, the implementation is supported and monitored by an experienced technical coordination team, contractors, 25 research biologists, observers, data managers and technicians in the headquarters operational areas – mainly personnel seconded from the KAZA partner countries.

Dream fund

The count of the number of elephants in KAZA, which had to be postponed for a year due to corona, was made possible by technical support from WWF and financial contributions from, among others, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Dutch postal code lottery through the Dream Fund Project, USAID and US Fish and Wildlife Service.

KAZA

The largest transboundary nature reserve in the world is located in southern Africa: Kavango-Zambezi (or: KAZA). It covers 520,000 square kilometers and lies in the basin of the Kavango and Zambezi rivers. The rivers and the surrounding savannas and grasslands are known for overwhelming natural phenomena. Every year the rivers overflow, causing thousands of animals to hunt for the rain and the food. The famous Victoria Falls and Okavango Delta are located in KAZA.

In 2011, the countries Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Angola established KAZA to preserve the valuable nature in the area. With the aim of protecting the rich nature, stimulating tourism and thereby improving the local population’s standard of living. WWF has supported the development of KAZA from the beginning and continues to work with other conservationists in the area.

Text: Ellen de Wolf, World Wildlife Fund
Photos: Elephant Connection (main photo: herd of elephants in Sioma Ngwezi National Park in Zambia); KAZA

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