Elephant count could be wrong – researcher

BY ROSIE MERCER

New research indicates that the existing methodology used for counting game could be wildly inaccurate - and figures obtained in this way should not be used to substantiate the need to cull game, particularly elephant in Hwange National Park. The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority an

d the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force estimate the park’s current elephant population to be 50,000 and its carrying capacity is 14,000. In mid-November, the Herald carried an article in which National Parks said the elephant population was 75,000 and the park had a carrying capacity of 45,000. Gavin St. Ledger and Sara Lamb, have been researching the elephants in Hwange for two years – almost entirely self-funded – due to their concern for this greatest of species. Gavin has always been concerned with the accuracy of the methodology used in game counting as it was based on the assumption that elephants drank only once a day at a waterhole. A few months ago, he experimented with a new technique in game counting – paintballing. By using different coloured markers at two of the key waterholes in the Sinimatella area – Nehimba and Shumba – Gavin paintballed five bulls and five matriarchs at each waterhole (the herd accompanying the matriarch were not marked due to limited resources and manpower). The table below gives his results. At Nehimba – elephants were marked orange Orange (returned) Red (from other waterhole) bulls Cows herd Bulls cows Herd 4 2 7 2 0 0 At Shumba  elephants were marked red Red (returned) Orange (from other waterhole) bulls Cows herd Bulls cows Herd 4 1 9 1 2 8 An analysis of his results shows that the methodology of the normal annual game counts would not only have double counted the adult bulls (6 at Nehimba and 5 at Shumba) and the cows (2 at Nehimba and 3 at Shumba), but more importantly the large numbers in the herds accompanying the cows (7 at Nehimba and 17 at Shumba). Whilst this was a small pilot project, it highlights the extent of potential double counting through the methodology currently in use, therefore figures currently being circulated may be seriously flawed. It is true that animals are dying due to lack of water, but it is the management of the water resources that needs to be improved alongside undertaking efficient and accurate game counts. The objective of the National Parks work should be to address the management of Zimbabwe’s natural resources for the benefit of the animals, the country and its citizens as well as the visitors. Calls for an elephant cull should therefore be shelved until a more accurate picture of the elephant population is available. If any reader feels that they could help support Gavin’s work either by donating funds or equipment, please Email [email protected] Copies of Gavin’s CDROM “River Road, a photographic safari of the Middle Zambezi”, can be purchased for ᆪ10 from Rosie Mercer in Northern Ireland. This would be a great Christmas present for those who are homesick for the bush and a way of assisting The Hwange Elephant Research Project.

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