There is a lot of really bad conservation news coming out of Africa these days. Most notably, surging demand for illegal wildlife products in Asian markets has created a devastating rhino and elephant poaching crisis across the continent. In South Africa, which is home to around 93% and 40% of the world’s white and black rhino populations respectively, over 1,000 rhinos were killed for their horns in both 2014 and 2013. Experts warn that rhinos could become extinct in the wild by the end of the decade if the crisis continues unabated. Elephants haven’t had it much better. In Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, which is one of the last great strongholds of the African elephant, for example, 25,000 individuals (about 66% of the reserve’s total population) were killed between 2009 and 2013.
So what should we make of the recent news that elephant numbers actually increased by 266% in the Serengeti-Maasai Mara ecosystem between 1986 and 2014? The news is based on the results of an aerial census conducted last year by the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, in conjunction with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and the Kenya Wildlife Service. In 1986, census takers estimated that there were 2,058 elephants living in the Serengeti-Maasai Mara ecosystem, which encompasses nearly 20,000 square miles in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. In 2014, researchers counted 7,450 elephants in the same area, which is surprising, to say the least, in light of the poaching crisis.
Overall, there seems to be little doubt that elephant numbers have declined across Kenya and Tanzania since the poaching epidemic began in earnest in 2007. Perhaps elephants are simply migrating from areas where they are more vulnerable to areas where they enjoy greater protection? The census also found that elephants seem to be migrating out of Kenya’s Maasai Mara and into Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. William Mwakilema, Chief Warden of Serengeti National Park, seems to favor this idea. He recently said, “We have a very conducive environment in Tanzania, where the wildlife species feel safe and that is why they are all rushing into the Serengeti.”
The aerial survey is set to move to Tanzania’s Tarangine-Lake Manyara ecosystem next, which should give conservationists and wildlife managers a better sense of what’s really happening with country’s elephant populations. But for now at least, this increase in elephant numbers seems to be a small bright spot in an otherwise bleak situation and one more reason to visit the Serengeti.