Gaborone, Botswana — The elephant population in southern Africa has increased by 5% since 2016 to nearly 228,000, according to results of a first ever aerial census conducted last year. However, there are concerns over the animals' mortality rate.
The elephants are mostly found in a large conservation area, the Kavango Zambezi Trans-Frontier Conservation Area, or KAZA.
KAZA covers 520,000 square kilometers across Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe and contains the world's largest elephant population.
Presenting the census results Thursday, survey coordinator Darren Potgieter said the outcome shows a stable population.
"Overall, across KAZA, the elephant population appears to be stable," he said. "However, there is some variation within the different regions. Some areas have shown possible increases in elephant numbers, most remained stable while for some areas, potentially decrease in elephant numbers."
However, he raised concern about the number of dead elephants encountered during the counting exercise. More than 26,000 carcasses were reported.
"That's a high number, higher than what one would like to see, and it may be indicative of high mortality," he said. "It is important to raise this as a red flag for the health of the population. It is important to conduct further investigation to understand the underlying reasons for this high level of mortality."
Potgieter said the reason for high mortality could be poaching, lack of habitat, an aging elephant population or diseases.
In 2019, Botswana recorded more than 300 deaths due to elephants drinking water contaminated with bacteria.
Malven Karidozo, representing the African Specialist Group, said the survey confirms their early predictions on the elephant numbers in southern Africa.
"The results confirm the African Elephant Specialist Group preliminary population trends report of stable to increasing," Karidozo said. "They further confirm the 2021 red list assessment of African elephants that reported a stable or growing KAZA elephant population and the largest single population of the savannah species on the continent."
The census shows Botswana has the largest elephant population, accounting for 58% of elephants in the KAZA region.
Botswana's Minister of Environment and Tourism Philda Kereng said the survey will help in decision making, particularly as the country faces growing human-elephant conflict.
"What this report will do (is it) will help us enhance and intensify the protection of both people and wildlife, balanced together," Kereng said. "We are also talking about habitat, which I think is also important. We will know how better to drive more beneficiation from this resource to our people."
The survey was conducted during the dry season between August and October of last year, using seven fixed-wing aircraft.
While southern Africa has seen an increase in the elephant population, elsewhere on the continent, the numbers are declining due to loss of habitat and poaching.