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New ideas needed to conserve Africa's wildlife

Friday August 11 2017

An elephant in one of Uganda's National Park Queen Elizabeth in Western Uganda. Photo by Morgan Mbabazi

An elephant in one of Uganda's National Park Queen Elizabeth in Western Uganda. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI 

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The last census of the African elephants revealed a bittersweet story of conservation.

It is the typical glass half-full or half-empty scenario punctuated by bright spots where the population is healthy and growing, as well as red zones where the elephant existence is endangered.

The African Elephant Status Report 2016 published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature showed Kenya had Africa’s fourth-largest population, estimated at 22,809. The population is stable, with some saying the number is higher but certainly less than 30,000.

One statistic that sticks out is the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 elephants poached every year.

Though this number is only part of the African elephant story, it is alarming and puts this endangered species top on the priority list of conservationists.

Botswana has Africa’s highest jumbo population, estimated at 131,626. The country has been kind to elephants. Some scientists feel that Botswana probably has more elephants than it can carry.


Zimbabwe has the second highest population at 82,630. That figure, however, is six per cent down from the last count.

Tanzania has 50,433 elephants. The figure could have been higher but for a population decline of 60 per cent in five years.

Conservationists seek to know if there are any factors that can predict whether a country would be good to wildlife.

The general conclusion appears to be that neither size, choice of political governance structure or regional location seems to be ironclad predictors. Data suggests there are lots of possibilities.

Toughening laws and prosecuting poachers help.


Countries with large or recovering elephant populations have invested in good laws but most importantly, seem to be implementing the laws in form of anti-poaching and improved prosecutions and sentencing. Kenya, South Africa and Botswana fall in this category.

Namibia is fifth with 22,754 elephants, followed by Zambia (21,967). The country has witnessed substantial decline in numbers along the Zambezi River, but other areas have been stable or increasing.

In sixth place is South Africa, with 18,841 jumbos. It is very stable.

The major elephant population in Kruger National Park has increased substantially.

Still in southern Africa, Mozambique comes next with 10,884 elephants.

The country, however, recorded a decline of 53 per cent in five years.


The W-Arli-Pendjari Complex that spans the border areas of three West African countries — Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin — comes in eighth, with 8,953 elephants. Don’t sneer at that, it is worth a toast because it represents a doubling of population since 2003.

South Sudan is ninth with 7,103, followed by Gabon (7,058), Cameroon (6,830) and Congo Republic (6,050).

Thirteenth is Uganda. Again, at 4,923 you would say it can’t hold a candle to Zimbabwe. However, that represents a head-turning increase of nearly 600 per cent since the country’s 1970s-80s poaching decade, when the population plummeted to less than 800.

In the 14th position is Angola, with 3,395 elephants — a number that has been rising since 2005.

Africa’s second-largest country after Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, takes the 15th position. Though one could say it has a lot of room for elephants, it recorded just 1,794 of them.

Since 2010, it has seen the second-fastest elephant population decline in the world.


Malawi is 16th with 1,307 elephants — reporting positive trends in two parks. Much bigger than Malawi in size, Ethiopia is next with 1,017 animals.

The country has recorded an unexpectedly large elephant population in the Omo Valley.

All this suggests that Africa can and has the ability to conserve its wildlife.

But it also points to challenges ahead.

Africa has the world’s youngest and fastest growing population. Providing food, jobs and decent incomes is the continent’s most pressing challenge. Where is the place of wildlife in this new Africa?

A new conversation is needed on the role of conservation in nation-building. There are lots of ideas out there and they can give a new direction and energy to the sometimes vexed issue of the competition between human and wildlife needs.


Sebunya is the President of the African Wildlife Fund. [email protected]