A chunk of territory in southern Africa about the size of France has long been considered one of the last strongholds of the African elephant. The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, better known as KAZA, straddles Angola, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe and was believed to hold as many as 250,000 elephants.
But all is not well there. The latest statistics from the Great Elephant Census, an ambitious elephant-counting project led by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s private company, Vulcan, paints a grim picture in part of KAZA’s Zambian portion.
“The Kwando area of southwestern Zambia is experiencing the worst poaching of any major savanna elephant population,” said Mike Chase, the coordinator of the project.
For the past two years, the Great Elephant Census has flown surveys covering 285,000 miles (460,000 kilometers) across 20 African countries in a first ever effort to reliably count 90 percent of savanna elephants, which many scientists consider a separate species from West Africa’s forest elephants.
At a time when Africa is losing about 30,000 elephants a year to poaching, populations in southern Africa have generally been holding their own, and even increasing in some areas. Most conservation efforts have focused on the harder hit parts of East Africa, including Tanzania and northern Mozambique.
The survey results for Zambia, released in March, show that overall elephant numbers in the country are stable. But in the southwest, especially in the 3,100-square-mile (5,000 square kilometers) Sioma Ngwezi Park between the Zambezi and Kwando Rivers, the declines have been catastrophic—an estimated 95 percent drop in elephant numbers.
A Bad Carcass Ratio
The Great Elephant Census counts both live elephants and elephant carcasses to establish a carcass ratio. A ratio of no more than 8 percent allows a population to remain stable. But in Sioma Ngwezi Park, the team recorded 48 live elephants and 280 carcasses—that’s a staggering 85 percent carcass ratio.
By comparison, the ratio in Tanzania and Mozambique, which have seen drastic and well-publicized population declines, is around 40 percent.
Poachers operate with impunity in Sioma Ngwezi because there isn’t much human activity. “No one’s involved in these regions—no ecotourism, no researchers, and probably very little in the way of anti-poaching initiatives,” Chase said.
Plus, poachers have an easy escape route. “Within a matter of minutes they can be in four different countries, knowing that local law enforcement officials will not pursue them across international borders,” he said.
And it’s not just the elephants that are in trouble. The aerial survey showed that clear-cutting of centuries-old teak forests is occurring in the park on a devastating scale. “Illegal logging is one of the greatest conservation threats in Africa,” Chase said. “It’s turning the Sioma Ngwezi forests into deserts.”
Chase believes that the high poaching levels, coupled with habitat loss, have forced most of Sioma Ngwezi’s remaining elephants to migrate to the safety of neighboring Botswana.
Who’s Minding the Store?
KAZA is run by governments of the member countries, guided by the Peace Parks Foundation. This multinational governmental and private enterprise organization promotes biodiversity, job creation through nature conservation, and regional peace and stability through the establishment of cross-border conservation areas.
Since its formation, the Peace Parks Foundation has lauded KAZA as one of the great “African successes” and southern Africa’s “premier tourist destination for viewing elephants” and “the vehicle for socioeconomic development in the region.”
When the Zambian deputy minister of tourism and arts opened the Sioma Ngwezi Park headquarters, on January 30, 2016, he highlighted the “successes that have been brought about by the law enforcement authorities in combating poaching.” Poaching-related arrests in the park rose from 11 in 2014 to 84 last year, according to the Peace Parks Foundation.
But Simon Munthali and Morris Mtsambiwa, KAZA's Botswana-based technical advisers, say their organization is more about government-to-government cooperation, information gathering, and research facilitation than action on the ground. “We assist in the conservation development in five countries,” Munthali said, adding that what KAZA needs now is a multinational armed force to stop criminal activity. But he doesn’t think that’s in the cards.
According to Ross Harvey, senior researcher for the South African Institute of International Affairs, an independent research institute specializing in African leadership, the KAZA initiative is a “fantastic concept,” but it’s hobbled by a lack of cooperation among the nations involved. “The success of Peace Parks ultimately depends on political cooperation, but this is basically absent.” he said.
Zambia’s Kafue National Park, which is also part of KAZA, points a way. Thanks to active patrolling by Game Rangers International—an independent wildlife management program supported by the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy—elephant numbers there are stable.
“We believe that this increased enforcement has effectively reduced poaching, said Matt Brown, the conservancy’s Africa conservation director. Brown acknowledged that “protection initiatives may need to be intensified in areas where the elephant population is facing more significant threats.”
The Zambian government has indicated that it will launch a working group to develop a plan for such areas—but time has all but run out for Sioma Ngwezi.
The danger now, warns Mike Chase, is that because Sioma Ngwezi is close to Botswana’s Okavango Delta region—the world’s largest single remaining population—it’s only a matter of time before poachers begin killing elephants there.
This story was updated on April 25, 2016 to make the following clarifications: the GEC paints a grim picture of a part of KAZA's Zambian portion, not the entire portion; KAZA is run by the governments of the member countries, not the Peace Parks Foundation; and poaching-related arrests in the park have risen from 11 in 2014 to 84 last year.
Adam Cruise is a senior contributor for the Conservation Action Trust, which promotes reporting on conservation and environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter.