One of the world’s largest conservation areas, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) is preparing for its first-ever aerial elephant census to determine the number of these pachyderms across the southern African plains. The historic count takes place next winter between May and August, writes MQONDISI DUBE
The other three KAZA members; Angola, Namibia and Zambia are under-populated. In particular, Angola has seen its numbers dwindle as the elephants fled from civil war and poaching.
Now the KAZA states are keen to establish the exact number of elephants within the vast conservation area covering more than 500,000 square kilometres.
Botswana will play a critical role in the census, notes the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) director, Kabelo Senyatso.
He said DWNP will provide strategic oversight of the project through the monthly KAZA wildlife directors’ meeting, which provides overall direction for the survey. Senyatso in his capacity as DWNP director sits in the meeting. Botswana will also contribute in cash and kind through the payment of officers involved in the survey, insurance and landing fees as well as the provision of meals and accommodation.
“This is yet to be collated but runs into several millions of pula,” Senyatso told Mmegi.
The DWNP has provided technical experts to help plan and coordinate the survey, where there will be a national coordinator who is expected to spend two days per month over the next 18 months on the project.
Botswana will provide the DWNP Cessna aircraft for the aerial survey, including pilots, recorders, observers, data handling and analysis experts.
Senyatso said the KAZA census aims to ensure a synchronised aerial survey to determine the elephant numbers and their season distributions.
“This is meant to provide a holistic KAZA-wide picture of elephant numbers and distribution, an improvement on the patterns that have thus far been derived from in-country surveys, some of which are done using different survey methodologies and not at the same time, which may result in over or undercounting of the animals,” he said.
The elephants regularly move across borders, which has made the synchronised survey critical to determine exact numbers. “The survey is one of the short-term measures proposed under the objective to maintain and manage KAZA elephants as one contiguous population. Consequently, the survey will indeed guide decision-making on policy and management issues at the KAZA level,” he said.
KAZA director, Nyambe Nyambe said the secretariat, headquartered in Kasane, will provide overall direction of the survey process, including planning, fundraising, and coordination and reporting. Nyambe said some of the activities were already underway.
In August, he said they had managed to secure 90% of the census budget, without giving figures. The survey is estimated to cost around $3 million (about P30 million).
Like Senyatso, Nyambe said the exercise will be synchronised to avoid double or undercounting.
“Key to mention is that the survey will be synchronised, and coordinated with a focus on avoiding the risk of double counting as the flights will be done at the same time using the same methodology,” he said.
He, however, could not say if the census will also include elephants outside the KAZA range but within the boundaries of member states.
“Regarding elephants outside the traditional ranges, I would be jumping the gun to speak about this. Details of the survey design will be shared at an appropriate time,” he said. Botswana and Zimbabwe have seen an increasing number of elephants roaming outside traditional ranges in search of food and water. This has led to increasing human-wildlife conflict.
In 2019, Botswana lifted a five-year moratorium on elephant hunting, as a way to ensure local communities benefit from wildlife resources. However, the move sparked anger from conservationists who argued it could lead to a possible increase in the poaching of elephants.