The Great Elephant Census (GEC)

Its faults and its foibles

I was taken to task at last year’s (2016) CITES meeting – by the IUCN’s Rosie Cooney (Chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission) – when I stated that the elephant population figures produced by Africa’s Great Elephant Census (GEC) was “just a list of numbers”; and that they, on their own, did not provide the vital facts that could be used to determine the true status, and the potential future well-being (or otherwise), of Africa’s elephants.  The explanation I offered for this opinion did not convince her – because I don’t think she was, at that stage, listening!

I acknowledged the great efforts expended by the many people who took part in the Africa-wide census but, when all was said and done, the population figures the GEC produced are, truly, just a “bunch of numbers”.  And I lamented the fact that this was a trend – “numbers” are seemingly all that matter in the present day and age! – that has developed over the last several decades. Whenever elephants are counted the whole world, including the IUCN, rejoice when the numbers are “up”. They produce long faces, however, when the numbers are “down” – and “poaching” is always blamed for the decline. Poaching, however, is not the only cause of elephant population declines nor should poaching be used as a scapegoat when elephant numbers are not increasing.

The census results (if its figures are true) indicate that by 2016 there were 352 271 elephants ranging over 18 countries across Africa.   The official records suggest, however, that there are 37 “elephant range states” in Africa.  An “elephant range state” is a country in which elephants are known to permanently exist.  So, 19 elephant-range-state countries were omitted from the census.  This is NOT a criticism. It is just a fact.  Nevertheless, the scientists who worked on the figures – using statistical calculations – state that the final figure represents 93 percent of the overall total number of Africa’s savannah elephants.  I accept that that observation may well be valid.

I am not going to comment on this state of affairs, however, or the figures provided, because they have nothing to do with my various very real criticisms of the Great Elephant Census.

Conclusion: According to the census report Africa’s savannah elephants, on average, declined by 30 percent (equal to 144 000 elephants) between 2007 and 2014.  This reflects an average annual net loss during that period of 20 571 per year; 56 per day; 2.3 per hour; or one every 25 minutes. The declines were, the report concluded, “primarily due to poaching”. These apparent facts paint a dismal picture at the start of the 21st Century – but let’s have a look at the whole story before we go ballistic.


In the 1970s and 1980s the political elite in Kenya were said to have been responsible for the reduction of elephant numbers in that country from an estimated 275 000 (1970) to 20 000 (1989); the killing of 10 000 black rhinos; and the killing of thousands of several other species such as zebra and Colobus Monkeys for their skins.  Two village hunters, on one occasion, were arrested for having 26 000 Colobus Monkey skins in their possession. The day after their arrest they were released from prison when “official papers” (from the highest office in the land) were produced to indicate the hunters were in legal possession of these skins.

All this contraband was exported from Kenya’s east coast seaports directly to illegal markets in the Far East without any kind of CITES documentation; but with presidential approval.

A similar tale emerges from Tanzania.  Between 1976 and 1986 the elephants of Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve were reduced from 110 000 to 55 000 (ref. Dr Rolf Baldus). And over a much longer period of time (1977 – 1993) Baldus claims that Tanzania’s elephant “poachers” reduced the overall elephant numbers, throughout Tanzania, from 365 000 to 53 000.   Baldus further reported: “The poaching had its roots in political and business circles in Tanzania, the villages bordering the SGR (Selous Game Reserve) and partly within the conservation system itself (i.e. government game rangers).” He goes on to say: “Village poachers and game scouts did the shooting, but ‘big people’ – politicians, civil servants, businessmen and even hunting operators – masterminded the slaughter.”  So here we have a repeat of what happened in Kenya!

THEN – between 2008 and 2014 – 44 000 elephants were removed (poached) from the Selous Game Reserve (alone) in Tanzania under circumstances that were entirely orchestrated by (as before) members of that country’s political, social and business elite; and the army and police force.

All this contraband was exported from Tanzania’s seaports directly to illegal markets in the Far East without any kind of CITES documentation; but with presidential approval.

Concomitantly, tens of thousands of elephants were allegedly removed from northern Mozambique by this same elite class of people in that country.

These latter two sets of elephants – the 44 000 (poached in the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania), and the alleged several tens of thousands of elephants killed in the Niassa Province of Mozambique at roughly the same time, are part of the 144 000 elephants that were recorded as having been killed “by poachers” (between 2007 and 2014) in the Great Elephant Census.

The term “poacher” is not defined in the GEC. It is left to the reader’s imagination to believe what he wants to believe.   The massive weight of continuous animal rights propaganda, however, has convinced the whole world that the poaching is/was controlled and organised by the “Chinese Mafia”; and the killing is carried out by “greedy” village poachers. So, I must suppose that that is what most people believe – because it is a statement that has been repeated many, many times since CITES 1989, and rarely refuted. But it is clearly not true!


Is there such a thing as the Chinese or Vietnamese mafia?

YES – I believe there is!

Is it true that the mafia orchestrate all elephant and rhino poaching in Africa?

In the main, NO!

So what do they do?

They act more like opportunistic “buyers” – than anything else. They buy illegal elephant tusks and rhino horns procured from African village poachers; and from wherever else they can get such contraband.

What else do they do?

I don’t know!

So, who organises the big poaching events?

Corrupt members of Africa’s political elite; and/or African criminal syndicates.

One must never forget that whatever involvement the village hunters have had in elephant and rhino poaching events – as independent poachers or as village hunter-employees of their state presidents et al (who provide them with immunity from prosecution) – they participate because they are poverty-stricken and unemployed. They poach, therefore, in order to survive. And every single one of us would do exactly the same thing if we were in their shoes.

It is a great distortion of the truth, therefore, to attribute the 144 000 “poached” elephants recorded in the GEC report, to Africa’s “greedy” rural subsistence poaching fraternity (as the animal rightists call them); to the Far Eastern poaching “mafia”; and/or to any other criminal elements in general African society – unless you include within this group those members of the political elite who orchestrated the really BIG poaching events in our recent history. So, the inferences made in the GEC report – for the need to stop “the poaching” if Africa’s elephants are to be saved – is VERY misleading. The big question this ideal begs is this: WHO do we have to stop poaching?

This part of my dissertation would not be complete, unless we add the commercial elephant and rhino poaching events that took place in the 1980s and 1990s in Zimbabwe, and in Zambia, in which the very top political leaders in these lands were also deeply implicated. These events, however, plus the Kenyan escapades of the 1970s and 1980s, plus the elephant poaching that took place in Tanzania prior to the year 2000, all fall outside the period reported upon on in the GEC. Nevertheless, they have to remain part of my dissertation because they reinforce my allegations that Africa’s political elite are more to blame for the decline in elephant and rhino numbers in Africa than are any other single group of people.


       Do Africa’s village hunters poach elephants on their own cognizance?

YES. But their contribution to the overall numbers of elephants poached is minimal when compared to the numbers that have been killed during the big events orchestrated by Africa’s political elite and their cronies.

This reality is very important to understand because one of the reasons for the Great Elephant Census was to advise world society with regard to the current state of Africa’s elephants – including the GEC’s unsubstantiated and unfortunate statement that the elephant declines were caused – too simply put – “by poaching”. Indeed, one of the main purposes of the GEC report is to provide world society with “all the facts” so that everyone can generate a greater social and governmental commitment to help stop “the poaching” that is devastating this iconic species. But “all the facts” were not presented.

If we start chasing moonbeams, however – that is, if we start pursuing the “illusions” created by animal rights propaganda – and create irreversible international legal situations to stop “the poaching” (as it has been erroneously portrayed) – we will never get to the bottom of Africa’s commercial poaching dilemma.  The participation of huge numbers of Africa’s senior political masters, civil servants, police, military and business elites in the criminal elephant poaching activities that have taken place in Africa during the last 50 years is actually well known to many people. They will not touch it – or talk about it – however, because it is the biggest hot-potato – ever – in African politics.

This controversial, sensitive and very risky subject has been for decades, and it remains, the biggest “ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM” that nobody wants to talk about, or get involved with. To most Westeners the reluctance by Africans to expose the brutal rape of their country’s precious wildlife assets, by its own leaders, may appear very strange, but Africans well know that whistle blowers in this part of the world have a very short life-expectancy!

Nevertheless, if “world society” ignores the true story about Africa’s elephant poaching saga, it will be guilty of a gigantic miscarriage of justice; and we will NEVER find a solution to saving Africa’s elephants.

Furthermore, if world society determines that the “elephant poaching” problem must be solved in the manner prescribed by the animal rightists – that is, by way of total preservation – by way of prohibiting “sustainable use” – their adoption of that solution will cause the total extinction of Africa’s wildlife this century. And THAT is the biggest danger inherent in this whole conundrum.

Prohibition has never worked as a solution to any problem – anywhere in the world – at any time in history. There is, however, an alternative to prohibition! And it is the only possible solution.

Within African society, there is a growing understanding that – to “save” Africa’s wildlife into posterity – will require the symbiotic integration of the “needs” of Africa’s rural people with the “needs” of Africa’s national parks (and the “needs” of the wild animals the national parks contain). And people in all walks of life in Africa, are beginning to realise that prohibition will destroy any chance that this can ever happen. So we have to convince society that prohibition is WRONG.

The driving force behind poaching by rural hunters in Africa has always been, and remains, poverty and unemployment. These are the “causes” that must be removed if elephant and rhino poaching is to stop. And the route to solving this problem is the symbiotic integration proposal suggested in the last paragraph. When the rural people of Africa can make MORE money out of the sustainable and legal harvest of wildlife – including elephants and rhinos – than they can get from the sale of illegal elephant tusks and rhino horns into the black market, they will stop poaching. It will then not be in their own best interests to support the black market! People thus generate an “emotional ownership” over what becomes “their” wildlife – after which they are hooked into the system.

Thankfully, there is also a growing resentment in Africa that the First World animal rights NGOs – all white in composition – through CITES – are imposing their Ku Klux Klan will on Africa’s people… like racist neo-colonialists. And if that anger grows – and I sincerely hope it does – it might just tip the scales in Africa’s favour. It is, anyway, time that Africa started solving its own problems!

If you want to solve a problem – any problem – you first have to find its “cause” – its “real” cause; and then you have to remove whatever that real cause might be. You cannot solve the elephant poaching problem in Africa by inventing a false problem (as the animal rightists are doing) because if you remove the false problem the real cause of the problem will remain. And the GEC report does not help us to put our finger on the real cause of the elephant poaching problem.

My most severe criticism of the GEC I have left for last. As I explained (above) all the GEC has given us is “numbers” – numbers of elephants. And a number is just a number!  Counting the numbers of elephants in Africa’s different populations means absolutely nothing, unless those numbers can be related to the carrying capacities of the habitats that support each one of them.

As an example, let us examine two very different elephant populations. An elephant population (No.1.) that numbers 50 000; when the habitat that supports it has an elephant carrying capacity of only 25 000. That situation tells me a very different story to this next scenario. Elephant population (No.2.) that numbers 25 000 – living in a habitat the elephant carrying capacity of which is 50 000.

In the case of the first population (No.1) those numbers (5000) are completely unsustainable.  We call such a population “excessive”. There are simply too many elephants for their habitat resources to sustainably support. The elephants are, therefore, every year, causing more and more irreparable damage to the vegetation; the habitat is degrading all the time; biological diversity is being adversely affected (plant and animal species will be rendered locally extinct) all the time; and if no remedial management action takes place to rectify the imbalance between the plants and animals, the game reserve will become a desert – with poor species diversity in a very unstable ecosystem. Any tourism development that is applied to such a system will collapse when the ecosystem collapses – which WILL happen sooner rather than later.

            NB: What is “carrying capacity”?   The elephant carrying capacity of a habitat is the maximum number of elephants that the habitat can sustainably carry – which means without causing irreparable damage to the vegetation.

Elephant populations that are “excessive” need to have their population numbers (in the first instance) reduced by half – judged upon by the size of the standing population. For example, if the population stands at 5000 elephants, the number should be reduced to 2500. And the wildlife manager’s botanists – who should be measuring the effects of that population reduction on the vegetation – should, within one year, be able to tell him if the habitat can support that reduced number of elephants. If not – if the habitat is still degrading (even though at a slower rate) – then a second phase population reduction needs to be applied: the 2 500 elephants need to be reduced to 1 250. And this management procedure needs to be repeated, annually, until the numbers are reduced to a level that is safely below the carrying capacity of the habitat. The wildlife manager will know he has reached this stage when his botanists tell him the habitat shows measurable and visible signs of recovery.

This may seem a very drastic management action but it is unavoidable if the manager is to create environmental conditions that are sustainable; that secure the sanctuary’s biological diversity; and that will not cause plant or animal extinctions due to inappropriate management action (MIS-management). This is called “tough-love” and “hard talk” management. If the wildlife manager is to do his primary job – which is to preserve his sanctuary’s biological diversity into posterity – there is no room for sentiment.

In the case of the second population (No.2) the numbers are (in the beginning) well within the elephant carrying capacity of its habitat. This population is “SAFE”. Individuals will be fat, breeding well, and causing no annual irreplaceable damage to the habitat. Such an elephant population will NOT cause the extinction of plants or animals. (And THAT situation will continue for 10 years – because elephant populations are capable of doubling their numbers every 10 years). After 10 years – when the population is likely to have increased to 50 000 – it would be advisable, in the elephants’ and their habitat’s best interests, to start culling the population, annually, by “about” 6 or 7 percent. This represents, approximately, the annual incremental rate of each year’s standing population. And it is in THIS management state that all responsible wildlife managers will want to maintain their sanctuaries – forever.

The most important omission from the GEC report, therefore, is any reference to the elephant carrying capacities of the habitats that support the many populations that were counted. Without those carrying capacity figures, there is absolutely no way that anybody can determine whether any particular population is “excessive”; “safe”; or “unsafe” (i.e. far below the carrying capacity of their habitat; and declining). This omission, therefore, is very important.

So, although we may say that the mega-population of elephants in the proposed Botswana-Namibia-Angola-Zambia-Zimbabwe Trans-Frontier National Park complex numbers (for argument’s sake) 250 000; if the collective elephant carrying capacity of this vast area is only 50 000, this reality points out a radical and vitally important factor in the elephant management equation. There is no point in rejoicing, therefore, simply because this part of Africa has 250 000 elephants when it can only carry 50 000 (or far less). But nobody seems to care!

I have been working on this kind of issue all my life and can give you some figures to mull over.

In 1960, Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park elephant carrying capacity was deemed to be 2500. This equated to one elephant per two square miles. (In those days we measured everything in miles not kilometres). That year, Hwange’s elephant count was 3500 – and that number was already causing the local extinction of several important tree species. So, I and another young game ranger, was tasked with the job of reducing the population by 1000. Today – depending on whose figures you accept – Hwange’s elephant herds number between 35 000 and 80 000. I average it out at about 50 000. There is, actually, considerable elephant movement between Hwange and Botswana all the time because both countries share the same mega-population. Whatever the varying elephant numbers may be, however, they have well and truly trashed the Hwange habitat. Hwange’s elephant population, therefore, is grossly excessive.

Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park elephants currently number about 14 000. If we can gauge the Gonarezhou – a VERY arid area – on the same basis as we did less-dry Hwange (which, scientifically, is not really acceptable – but we are not being too specific here) – the Gonarezhou elephants should only number 1 000 (one elephant per two square miles). The Park’s mass of elephants (14 000), over the years, has reduced the number of ancient baobab trees in the park by more than 90 percent; the riverine forests that once grew along the Lundi and Nuanetsi Rivers in 1960 have all gone; and the deciduous mopani woodlands have been trashed. The Gonarezhou’s elephant population, therefore, is also grossly excessive

In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where I am now confident in saying that the elephant carrying capacity was only 3 500 (approx. one elephant per two square miles) when the habitats were in good condition (c.1955), the elephants now number between 23 000 and 28 000. This population, therefore, is also grossly excessive and the elephants have already reduced the game reserve’s vitally important top-canopy trees – overall – by “more than” 95 percent. I am particularly concerned that the Park’s Martial Eagles and Ground Hornbills are in decline.

Botswana’s elephant count in 2013 was 207 000; and the habitats within 25 kilometres of water in the combined game reserves of north-western Botswana are already virtual deserts. That year (2013), the Botswana government also admitted that, concomitantly, all other game animal populations in this entire region were in free-fall collapse – with population declines registering between 60% and 90%. There are many animal and plant species in this region of Botswana, therefore, that have either already been rendered locally extinct or are tottering on the brink of local extinction. Botswana’s elephants are also grossly excessive in number.

            So, what do we do with Hwange’s, the Gonarezhou’s, Kruger’s and Botswana’s elephant populations under these conditions? What will society allow us to do in these circumstances? The wildlife management principles – with regard to what we SHOULD do – are as clear as a bell. But will the responsible wildlife managers be allowed to do what has to be done?

And here lies the tragedy of the whole wildlife management situation in Africa today. During the last 50 years the animal rights NGOs have gradually but decidedly taken over the important wildlife management decision-making process through CITES; and our governments have sat back passively and allowed this to happen. The animal rightists rejoice because they are making a lot of fraudulent money out of the situation. Many other nature-loving segments of society have rejoiced, too, because they now have a greater say in our wildlife management affairs than they ever had before – but, even with all the good will in the world they, too, are not qualified to make responsible wildlife management decisions.

Beware of ladies who take the trouble to travel from South Africa to East Africa and return proclaiming how wonderful it is to actually “see” a wild elephant; who mingled with and became indoctrinated by East Africa’s many animal rightist NGOs; who come back imbued with “the sure knowledge” that they are now qualified to pass responsible comment on elephant management; and who lament the fact that the poachers are killing elephants in Africa at the rate of one every fifteen minutes. No matter how quaint some people might think this state of affairs to be, such ladies are dangerous because they convince many people who haven’t had the opportunity to travel to East Africa. And they are NOT experts in elephant management.

I trust that my readers will now understand WHY I insist that the information supplied by the Great Elephant Census is not enough to determine just how many elephants southern Africa’s wildlife sanctuaries can sustainably carry; because THAT was the whole purpose of the GEC; and THAT cannot be determined with “numbers” alone.

Practically every one of the elephant populations that exist south of the Zambezi and Cunene Rivers in southern Africa are, in my estimation, “excessive”. THAT fact, however, will only be corroborated when or if the GEC boffins sit down and determine the carrying capacities of the habitats that support each and every one of the elephant populations that was counted during the survey.

If they determine – as I have done in this article – that all the elephant populations in southern Africa are, indeed, “excessive” that will mean that AT LEAST HALF of the elephant numbers counted in these populations will have to be culled immediately. And it is my belief that if the habitat carrying capacity assessment is done properly – and due consideration is given to the priority wildlife management objective of maintaining species diversity in our national parks – southern Africa will end up protecting just a tiny fraction of the great numbers of elephants that were counted during the GEC.

There is absolutely no point at all in trying to carry more elephants in our wildlife sanctuaries than the habitats can sustainably support because, in the long run – if we do – the habitats will collapse and they will then likely not be able to carry any elephants at all. BEFORE that happens, however, entire and unique habitats will have been totally destroyed, and the plant and animal species – entire ranges of plant and animal species – that are adapted to those extinguished habitats, will become locally extinct. And the game reserve will, ultimately, become a desert.

Simply put: the national park sanctuaries of southern Africa (and probably most of the rest of Africa, too) CANNOT sustainably carry the huge numbers of elephants that world society expects us to carry. This fact will give you the complete measure of my concern for the lack of appropriate information revealed to us in the Great Elephant Census report.


Ron Thomson

I am NOT a ‘trophy hunter’ - and never have been. I am not involved in the trophy hunting safari business. I am also not a game rancher. But I have ‘administratively controlled’ professional hunters and safari outfitters in my capacity as a government game warden. I am an 80 year old ex-game warden with 60 years of continuous experience in hands-on wildlife management, and national park management, in Africa (1959 to 2019). In breakdown, I have 24 years experience in the management of national parks in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe - and in the management of the wild animal populations that lived inside those national parks; one year as the Chief Nature Conservation of the Ciskei in South Africa; three years as Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board in South Africa; and I worked for three years as a professional hunter in the South African Great Karoo (taking foreign hunters on quests for plains game trophies). I discovered, however, that professional hunting was not my forte. I worked as an investigative wildlife journalist for 30 years in South Africa. I have written fifteen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the subject of wildlife management and big game hunting in Africa. Five of my books are university-level text books on wildlife management. I am a university-trained ecologist; was a member of the Institute of Biology (London) for 20 years; and was a registered chartered biologist for the European Union for 20 years. I have VAST experience in the “management hunting” of elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and hippos (as part of my official national park work in the control of problem animals); and I pioneered the capture of black rhino in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley (1964 - 1970). My university thesis was entitled: “The Factors Affecting the Survival and Distribution of Black Rhinos in Rhodesia”. Look at my personal website if you want any further details about my experience:

Ron Thomson has 217 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

2 thoughts on “The Great Elephant Census (GEC)

  • As a commited conservationist and nature lover I can not agree more with the statements of Ron Thompson.
    Here is a man who actually knows what he is talking about and trying his best to show the rest of the world what is right.
    I have a saying “You have to kill them for them to survive” This might seem a strange statement about the animals of Africa, but think about it……….
    Eco tourism alone can and does not work alone. There has to be a monetary value to the animals or else you might as well get rid of them and plant crops here.
    And elephant numbers in Southern Africa have to be controlled to prevent entire eco system collapse.
    Further North the politicians greed needs to be stemed from obliterating their wildlife populations. This can only be done by opening up hunting in these countries again. The hunters then become the custodians of the animals and the eco systems under their control.
    Please let Africa solve Africa’s problems in this instance.

    • Dear Rob.

      You have the right perspective. All I have been able to do is to explain to you the way forward. But I cannot get to everybody. All I can do is to try to show you guys the right way to “think” about wildlife and its essential management. Now it is up to the likes of YOU to spread that message far and wide. Keep reading and keep learning. Every bit of new information is like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle…. and only when you have got all the pieces will you be able to see the “big picture.” I wish there were more people like you running around on a computer.

      Well done. And thank you for your kind words.


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