What Happens When a Tech Billionaire Helps Scientists Count Elephants

A $7 million conservation project takes to the sky.

How many elephants currently live on the African continent? Scientists estimate that 3 to 5 million roamed West and southern Africa in the first part of the 20th century. Now, thanks to development and hunting, there is an estimated 472,000 to 690,000 African elephants left. A brisk but illegal international ivory tusk trade suggests that number could get smaller.

That is exactly why conservationists need to know precisely how many African elephants exist. To protect the remaining animals, governments, NGOs, and scientists say they must understand how and where those animals live, and what is threatening them.

The solution: Look the sky. TakePart reports that scientists are in the midst of a two-year “Great Elephant Census,” the “the first continent-wide survey of the animals’ population in 40 years.” Participating researchers are soaring in airplanes above 22 African countries, counting elephant populations from above.

The view from above, courtesy Great Elephant Census

LiveScience explains:

To count elephants, [elephant biologist Mike] Chase and his team plan to fly transects that are 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) apart, looping back every 10 minutes so as to not double-count animals. This should allow them to count about 20 percent of the animals in any given area, he said; statistical models will then help the researchers extrapolate to estimate how many elephants are present between the transects.

The count will mostly take place during the dry season, when elephants congregate near water. This will make the animals easier to count, and also means they are less likely to move around quickly, Chase said.

The $7 million project has an unlikely tech benefactor: Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen, who is worth about $17.4 billion and is said to visit the African continent twice a year.

“This is the bleakest time for the elephants,” Allen said at the project’s launch in late 2013. “The statistics on the plight of Africa’s elephants [are] daunting. I’m devoted to supporting new endeavors which provide meaningful science to help reverse this decline and to reduce the variability in elephant population statistics.”

The Great Elephant Census is set to conclude in 2016, just in time for a major international wildlife trade meeting in South Africa.

One of the project's first flights, courtesy Great Elephant Census

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