Science must continue, even as we try to stop the slaughter

Posted on 19 February 2013

By Dr Chistiaan Van Der Hoeven WWF-NL
By Dr Chistiaan Van Der Hoeven WWF-NL

I'm a biologist, with a Ph.D. in park management and wildlife surveys – counting stuff. But I'm originally an ethologist, so animal behavior. I have done a lot of research in Africa on monkeys and on elephants, which made me love those species and the African continent. They say you can never get Africa out of your blood once you've been there. I don’t do the counting myself any more, which is a pity because it’s nice to run around in the forest.

Today, we don't know enough about how many elephants there are. The problem is, with the current poaching crisis going on, the priority is to save the elephants. If you talk to people in the field they say, “Listen, I don’t care how many elephants there are. They are being slaughtered by the thousands, so I am not going to spend money and time counting elephants while they are being slaughtered.” But how can you protect what you can’t even count? Surveying is actually an essential part of protecting.

For some species, we have sophisticated monitoring – the rhino DNA database, for example. We can really see what’s going on with rhinos. But with other species we know so little. We don’t know how many gorillas are there in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. We have no clue. We need this information, or we could lose a population before we ever knew it existed. So counting is really important.

Part of the challenge is that it’s extremely difficult to count animals in dense forest. Another factor is the sheer scale of the landscapes we’re trying to survey. This is why we need a mix of methodologies – old fashioned and high tech.

I developed with my previous professor a partnership with the local people that live in these forests. They know exactly what is in the forests. They don’t care about population densities, but they do know that the elephants are there, or the apes. And they know if there used to be more. So I developed a way of interviewing community members and translating what they said as a way to estimate how many animals live in a particular area in the forest. They know perfectly well whether numbers have gone down or up based on their daily observations. If you are not sure, then you ask someone from the older generation to come by, and they will know.

On the other end of the spectrum, we now have access to cutting-edge conservation drones. These “eyes in the sky” let us look for things like fires from poachers camps. When you fly over the rainforest, you can't see anything but the canopy trees, but you can see very far. A wisp of smoke stands out. This information is vital when deciding where to send anti-poaching patrols. You can’t be everywhere at once – you need some intelligence. By sending a drone up, you can point the patrol in the right direction and save a lot of time and money.

Drones also can be useful for counting animals. By gathering better data we can make smarter management plans. We won’t save animals by law enforcement alone. We need that, but we need science, too.
Observing wildlife in Gabon
© Christiaan van der Hoeven
With David Greer in Gabon forest.
© Christiaan van der Hoeven
Counting monkeys in Campo-Ma'an, Cameroon.
© Christiaan van der Hoeven