Largest-ever elephant survey shows dramatic decline in numbers

The biggest and most complete survey of elephants in Africa has found shocking population declines among savannah elephants.

The first ever pan-African Great Elephant Census (GEC) took two years and was conducted in 18 countries, looking specifically at savannah elephant population sizes.

Overall, the GEC found that there was a decline of 30% - around 144,000 elephants - between 2007 and 2014.

The losses were particularly severe in some countries, with Tanzania losing 60% of its savannah elephant population and Mozambique seeing a loss of more than half its population in just five years.

Elephants in Angola also experienced staggering population declines much greater than previously expected, with a decline of 22%.

Savannah elephants face local extinction in some areas Credit: ITV News

Devastatingly low numbers of elephants were found in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and southwest Zambia.

In these areas where numbers are so low, savannah elephants face local extinction.

Planes were used to carry out the largest-ever survey of its kind Credit: ITV News

The survey was carried out by flying over some 460,000 km of land and observing and counting the number of elephants seen - and the number of carcasses relative to those seen alive.

A carcass ratio of 10% indicates that there was one carcass for every live animal sighted.

Where the carcass ratios is more than eight per cent, it's an indication of poaching in the area, and illustrates population decline.

Elephant carcasses were counted in order to assess whether populations were declining or increasing Credit: ITV News

Northern Cameroon has a disturbingly high carcass ratio of 83%, meaning that for every 10 live elephants that were counted, they also found at least eight carcasses.

This illustrates the huge problem of poaching in the area, showing that authorities must do more to protect their elephants.

Savannah elephants play and socialise at a watering hole Credit: ITV News

African governments have of late attempted to address the issue of poaching by getting rid of huge stockpiles of ivory confiscated from poachers, showing that it is not worth the hassle.

In April this year, Cameroon burned 3.5 tons of ivory in a ceremony, and similar happened in Kenya in the same month, where officials piled up and burned 100 tons of ivory as an anti-poaching message.

Ivory being burned in Kenya

In September, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will convene, where nation members will vote on a one-off sale proposal from Zimbabwe and Namibia.

The two countries wish to enact a one-off legal ivory sale to get rid of stockpiled ivory from elephants who died naturally.

This would be a repeat of a sale which happened in 2008 - a sale which saw Japan and China pay 15 million US dollars for some 102 tonnes of ivory, but which researchers worry may trigger an upswing in poaching attempts.

The Environmental Investigation Agency believes that domestic ivory markets like these pose a "very serious threat to elephants in the wild" because they are used as a cover for illegal sales of ivory.

Shruti Suresh, senior wildlife campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency, said that closing domestic ivory markets is key to protecting elephants, and that ramifications for poachers should be tougher.

"We need to be talking about increasing arrests, increasing the conviction rate of these individuals, and seizing their assets," she told ITV News.