Rare sighting of Senegalese elephant brings fresh but cautious hope

Photo courtesy of: DPN/Panthera/PMC

A wild elephant has been sighted for the first time in many years in Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park.

The lone bull was spotted by a field team, including a researcher from Panthera, in Niokolo on January 19.  The sighting is believed to be the first confirmed direct sighting of an elephant in the park in many years.  

An image of the bull had previously appeared on a camera trap in 2019. Additional camera trap images also showed elephants in other areas of the park, but no scientist had physically seen a forest elephant in Niokolo for years. 

Philipp Henschel, Regional Director of West and Central Africa, Panthera, says the elephant was fairly calm when spotted and wasn’t far from fresh elephant dung that had been seen only a few days earlier. 

“Everybody in our team was super excited about this sighting,” he added. “The fact to see the animal in broad daylight, and the placid behaviour the bull exhibited during the encounter, are both testimony that our joint conservation efforts in this park are finally paying off. Over the past 2 ½ years ranger teams from park authority DPN (Direction des Parcs Nationaux) have invested an impressive patrol effort to secure the area, supported technically and logistically by our local Panthera team, and thanks to contributions from our long-term partners PMC (Petowal Mining Company) and WCN-LRF (Wildlife Conservation Network’s Lion Recovery Fund).”

The sighting has delighted conservationists but also raised serious questions about the future of this fragile elephant population. 

Senegal has one of the most threatened elephant populations in Africa and remains a hub for the illegal ivory trade. In the late 1970s, the population at Niokolo - Senegal’s largest national park, was estimated to be around 450 elephants. Today it's believed only 5-10 elephants are left.  Decades of poaching have decimated populations of lions, leopards, elephants and other species that once roamed this popular West African tourist destination in larger numbers. It remains a unique cradle for endangered West Africa wildlife, however, and also harbours the world’s last remaining wild population of Western giant eland as well as West Africa’s very last population of African wild dogs.

Panthera, which works to protect wild cats and their habitats, has been active in Niokolo-Koba since 2016, to support protection and management efforts by park authorities DPN financially and technically. This joint park support project, accompanied by long-term partners PMC and WCN-LRF, has started operations in a pilot project area encompassing 650 square miles of gallery forests, flooded savannah plains and rocky slopes and hills in the southeast of the park. It also recently built a new ranger outpost in this remote part of the park and the elephant sighting was made in the vicinity of this post.  In 2020, the joint DPN/Panthera efforts will be expanded to the remainder of the park, to try and mitigate the constant threat poachers pose this second-largest national park in West Africa.

The sighting of Niokolo’s first elephant in many years has brought fresh hope that other elephants might still be living in the park. Panthera and DPN, with help from the Elephant Crisis Fund and other partners, now plan to carry out detailed survey work to determine how many elephants remain. Dung samples collected from the park will be assessed in a wildlife genetics lab in Senegal to establish the current elephant population size, genetic make-up and diversity. This data will be used to better understand the Niokolo population and to develop solutions to further protect them.

Researchers are particularly keen to see if any breeding female elephants are living in the park. Only male elephants have been recorded recently and conservationists are concerned about the future viability of the elephant population here. As far as elephants go, Niokolo is isolated and remote. The nearest country with a strong population in the right habitat and enough female elephants to spare is Benin - some 2000 km away. Translocating wild elephants across such a long distance, however, would be both costly and risky. 

‘Niokolo-Koba is at the extreme end of the challenges facing elephants today,” says the Director of the Elephant Crisis Fund, Chris Thouless. “Senegal and the surrounding countries including Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone all contain tiny remnant elephant populations on the edge of survival. We can only hope the survey shows females living in Niokolo and that they have a chance to rebuild their population, given the huge logistic problems involved in translocation."

The survey work will begin in April 2020 and will take approximately 6 months to complete. We’ll be sure to bring you updates on the status of the elephant population in Niokolo as and when we know more. 

Photo and footage courtesy of: DPN/Panthera/PMC

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