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TONY KARUMBA / AFP

Yes, Kenya’s elephants have increased in last 30 years but only census will plug data gaps

A count that is underway is expected to definitively settle the question of just how many jumbos the East African country has.

  • Xinhua attributed the elephant numbers to the Wildlife Research and Training Institute and the institute head confirmed this.  

  • When we crunched the numbers we found a slightly lower increase than reported, of 2.5%. 

  • While the Kenyan elephant population is growing, it is still far from recovering to 1970s levels. Accurate data is also hard to come by, which officials hope to address with the 2021 census.

Kenya is counting its wildlife for the first time to better manage a major tourist attraction and source of income for the country.

The census started in May 2021 and is expected to be completed within two months. It is being run by the tourism ministry and two state agencies, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the newly launched Wildlife Research and Training Institute.  

But before the count was started, China’s largest news agency, Xinhua, trumpeted the country’s rising elephant numbers. 

“Kenya's elephant population has gradually increased at an annual rate of approximately 2.8% over the last three decades amid declining poaching”, said Xinhua. It attributed this statistic to the wildlife research institute. 

China’s embassy in Nairobi also tweeted the story. The Asian country is reported to be a key ivory market, encouraging poaching in Kenya.

But has Kenya’s elephant population increased at this pace?

Statistics from KWS and research institute

Xinhua’s claim was based on an April 2021 statement by the research agency which highlighted human activities – other than poaching – as the key challenges to Kenya’s elephants.

World Wide Fund for Nature Kenya (WWF Kenya), a non-governmental organisation that focuses on conservation in the country, told Africa Check that the institute, and in particular its acting director, Dr Patrick Omondi, would have the most accurate data on elephant populations.

Omondi was previously in charge of research, biodiversity and planning at the KWS. He confirmed that the statistic was from the institute. 

He shared a table showing elephant population estimates for several years between 1973 and 2020. The annual growth rate had been calculated from 1989, “the year that the KWS was established”, Omondi told Africa Check.

He shared the formula used for the calculation. More details on Kenya’s national elephant population could be found in the African Elephant Database, he said, “but [should be used] with caution since the database was last updated in 2015”. 

A tale of varying data

Using the formula, we worked out an annual growth rate of 2.5%, or about 3,300 elephants, lower than the rate in the KWS statement. We asked Omondi about the difference.

The 2020 elephant population represented “a 2.5% annual population increase since 1989, when the estimate was 16,000”, he said, paring back the institute’s rate.

This inconsistency reflects the often conflicting data on elephants in Kenya.

The African elephant database is maintained by volunteer technical experts based in Nairobi. In 2015, when it was most up to date, it showed there were a “definite” 22,809 elephants in Kenya. It also guessed there were as many as 8,090 more elephants, for a total of 30,899.

A report based on this data said the guesses likely represent a minimum number, and actual numbers could be higher than those reported. An estimated 20% of elephant range was not covered by the estimates, the report said.

For 2015, the wildlife institute estimated there were as many as 33,469 elephants.

A national wildlife conservation report also highlights the data gaps, estimating 33,548 elephants at the end of 2014, compared to 32,214 from the institute. 

With the census, the estimated size of the national elephant population “might change”, Omondi said.

Elephant population reports often omit margins of error

We also asked conservation experts about the differing estimates.

Dr Fiona Maisels is professor of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Stirling in Scotland. She told us that margins of error are often left out when reporting elephant populations.

“For sample methods, there are usually 95% confidence limits either side of any estimate, which tend not to be reported on in press releases, public reports and so on,” she said.

(Note: Read our guide for expert tips on reading and reporting numbers.) 

Maisels is also an advisor to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wildlife survey and monitoring programmes in Central Africa. She said her expertise was in counting forest elephants on the ground, while in Kenya elephants are usually counted from the air. 

The census would provide the best data on how many elephants Kenya has, she said.

Yes, fall in poaching, but still a long way to go

Kenya’s elephant conservation strategy for 2012 to 2021 noted that the country’s anti-poaching efforts and the international ban on ivory trade had “successfully reduced the poaching to a reasonable level enabling population recovery”. 

On World Elephant Day in August 2020 the national wildlife agency KWS announced that the elephant population in Kenya had more than doubled between 1989 and 2019, from 16,000 to 34,800.

The agency’s head attributed this to the conservation strategy. The “establishment of community conservancies in known elephant range areas and tolerance by communities living with elephants” have also been credited for this change.

But there is still a long way to go. Data from the Wildlife Research and Training Institute shows that elephant numbers plummeted from 167,000 in 1973 to 16,000 in 1989, before starting to recover in 1991.

Conclusion: Kenya’s elephants numbers on the rise but census to provide best data

In an April 2020 story, China’s biggest news agency claimed that Kenya’s elephant population had grown at an annual average of 2.8% over the last 30 years, as poaching fell.

We traced the statistic to Kenya’s Wildlife Research and Training Institute. The state agency’s data shows a population increase over the past 30 years. 

It measured this at 2.8% before paring it back to 2.5% after we queried the numbers. Longer-term data shows there is still far to go for Kenya’s elephant population to recover to 1970s levels. 

But it also shows that while poaching has consistently been on the decrease, the available official data has major gaps that only a census will remedy. We rate the claim as mostly correct.

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