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Aerial Census of Africa’s Elephants Aims to Help Conservation, Anti-Poaching Efforts

OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana—”Fifteen elephants right!” ecologist Mike Chase shouts above the roar of the single-engine Cessna. The plane swoops low over the herd of gray bodies as they wade single-file across the floodplain below.

We’re flying over the channels and islands on the western periphery of the vast Okavango Delta, as part of the Botswana leg of an Africa-wide project known as the Great Elephant Census.

The yearlong project began in February and encompasses 18 countries—the first pan-African aerial survey of savanna elephants since the 1970s. (Forest elephants, concentrated in central and West Africa, aren’t part of the census because they’re mostly invisible from the air.)

Funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen, the census will fill an urgent need, says Chase, who is founder and lead researcher for the project. “If we don’t know how many are left on the continent,” Chase asks, “how can we plan for the future? What is the baseline? Where do we focus our attention? Where does donor money need to be allocated?

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