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Accurate counts of animals are critical for prioritizing conservation efforts. Past research, however, suggests that observers on aerial surveys may fail to detect all individuals of the target species present in the survey area. Such errors could bias population estimates low and confound trend estimation. We used two approaches to assess the accuracy of aerial surveys for African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) in northern Botswana. First, we used double-observer sampling, in which two observers make observations on the same herds, to estimate detectability of elephants and determine what variables affect it. Second, we compared total counts, a complete survey of the entire study area, against sample counts, in which only a portion of the study area is sampled. Total counts are often considered a complete census, so comparing total counts against sample counts can help to determine if sample counts are underestimating elephant numbers. We estimated that observers detected only 76% ± SE of 2% of elephant herds and 87 ± 1% of individual elephants present in survey strips. Detectability increased strongly with elephant herd size. Out of the four observers used in total, one observer had a lower detection probability than the other three, and detectability was higher in the rear row of seats than the front. The habitat immediately adjacent to animals also affected detectability, with detection more likely in more open habitats. Total counts were not statistically distinguishable from sample counts. Because, however, the double-observer samples revealed that observers missed 13% of elephants, we conclude that total counts may be undercounting elephants as well. These results suggest that elephant population estimates from both sample and total counts are biased low. Because factors such as observer and habitat affected detectability of elephants, comparisons of elephant populations across time or space may be confounded. We encourage survey teams to incorporate detectability analysis in all aerial surveys for mammals.
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The study was funded by Paul G. Allen as part of the Great Elephant Census.
Scholossberg, Scott; Chase, Michael J.; and Griffin, Curtice R., "Testing the Accuracy of Aerial Surveys for Large Mammals: An Experiment with African Savanna Elephants (Loxodonta africana)" (2016). PLoS ONE. 385.