Tracking Elephant Killings

In Focus, March 2004

by Elizabeth A. Foley

Backed up by the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and a swath of nongovernmental organizations, the Long-term System for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants project is charged with setting up on-the-ground monitoring of elephant populations in Africa and Asia. It’s also providing the first intergovernmental system of elephant data collection of its kind.

Some 29 countries in Africa and 11 in Asia are being targeted by the project, which is known as MIKE. In Africa, the project is in the initial stages of transforming data collection in the field and its analysis.

“At this point all the sites are set up and producing data,” says Nigel Hunter (right), Director of the MIKE project for CITES. “We’re missing some quality control, and are a fair bit away from what you could consider standardization, but in the context of working with 29 different countries we’ve come a long way.

“It’s a bit soon to really see the impact of MIKE, but we’re already getting reasonable feedback regarding elephant mortality and found carcasses. At the moment illegal hunting is quite low in much of the African range, but there are some indicators that there are poaching hotspots in Central Africa.”

Ultimately the elephant assessments taking place though MIKE will act as benchmarks for entire African ecosystems.

“It applies to avoiding the empty forest syndrome as in cases like the ‘Park W’ ecosystem, a unified range and the largest savanna system in West Africa, crossing Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo,” Hunter explains. “The main focus of our survey in this ecosystem was elephants, but we took advantage of the processes we’ve developed to do surveys on other species like buffalo.”

Elephant population surveys at each site every two years, along with more continuous ground work in these sites, form the basis of the system.

The alliance supporting MIKE includes the European Commission, the governments of Belgium, Japan and the United States, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the Wildlife Conservation Society, IUCN-The World Conservation Union, Fauna & Flora International and World Wide Fund for Nature.

Focus on Guinean Forest Sites

Recently culminated, CEPF support to IUCN’s important role in this project focused primarily on sites in the Upper Guinean Forest, which contain elephant populations living in small and isolated forest fragments. This region is a priority area for CEPF investments in the Guinean Forests of West Africa biodiversity hotspot. West Africa suffers from the loss of 90 percent of elephant habitat in the last century.

Within the Guinean Forest sites, population surveys are underway in all the sites with the exception of Liberia due to civil unrest. Luckily the two Côte d’Ivoire forest sites were completed before civil strife erupted there.

“It’s really too early to tell what impact MIKE will have in the Guinean Forest sites—we’re only two years in, and forest sites are more time consuming because you can’t do aerial surveys,” Hunter said. “But in the savanna areas where we have been able to survey, like Togo, the government is recognizing a need to maintain its fragile elephant populations.”

This recognition was echoed by participants in a recently completed CEPF-supported project also undertaken by IUCN geared toward identifying, defining and managing five key elephant migration corridors in West Africa, including a corridor between Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. IUCN brought together 38 experts from throughout the region, including elephant and natural resource management specialists, sustainable use experts and various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to develop a strategic plan for the management and protection of the corridors.

The workshop results illustrated the need for elephant corridors and provided important reference tools for future work. For example, with the case of Gourma and the Ghana-Burkina Faso corridor, action plans established during the workshop are serving as a base for future project proposals. MIKE’s data will help establish management strategies for these and other corridors.

Though some of the African countries involved in elephant monitoring have adequate elephant data, the vast majority don’t. Population levels and solid statistics on poaching and illegal killing are inconsistent, making the job of comparing each nation— the core problems and how to deal with them—almost impossible.

In the two years since MIKE has been in place in West Africa, however, MIKE officials have seen more cross-border collaboration.

“Both population surveys and law enforcement are being recognized and discussed at key meetings with the wildlife agency chiefs,” Hunter said. “MIKE information is also helping the African Elephant Specialist Group collaborate with the West Africa range states on addressing elephant corridors and management strategies.”

Key to achieving this has been building institutional capacity to monitor and enforce hunting laws through government-NGO partnerships.

Both the Wildlife Conservation Society and Fauna & Flora International have memorandums of understanding with the MIKE program and are active in helping achieve MIKE objectives in the field. WWF International is contributing funding support.

“Many governments already have NGO partners collaborating at MIKE sites,” Hunter said. “Given that MIKE is the initiative of the range states, then the focus of activities has been to encourage partnerships and support the capacity building and monitoring techniques that MIKE is promoting.”

Progress in the CEPF-sponsored project includes setting up sub-regional support unit staff with good communication systems, and putting national officers and site officers and their teams in place with communications systems. Site boundaries have been agreed in 11 countries and all 19 sites, and digitized maps are available for 14 of the 19 sites.

Information systems, including computers, software and the MIKE database are now installed in all sites. Training sessions in Accra and Ouagadougou in 2003 helped the national and site officers of all the participating countries, and follow up sessions are taking place in Niamey.

Law enforcement patrols are now active in all 19 sites and are delivering monthly reports from all countries except Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. The emphasis now is to ensure that monthly reports come regularly and are of reasonably consistent quality.

In addition, population forest surveys were undertaken in Kakum in 2001, in Mole in March 2002, in Gourma in April 2002 and in Taï and Marahouô in July and August 2002. Ecosystem surveys have been conducted in five sites of Park W (Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as Pendjari and Keran) as well as the Nazinga site in April-May 2003. A survey team from Sapo, trained in Ghana in September 2002, could not continue work due to the war.

This institutional capacity forms the building blocks crucial to MIKE’s future.

“In sites where staff are and we can operate, we need to establish a routine, then we’ll have a platform to build on,” Hunter said.

Providing funding is in place for 2005, Hunter plans to work on developing analytical strategies focused on getting best use out of the MIKE data. Ultimately this and plans to add Geographic Information System and statistical analysis training at a national level to its activities will improve feedback to governments and enable better decisionmaking tools for maintaining elephant populations.