Conservationist Fears 'Unsustainable Rate Of Killing' After Legendary Elephant Falls To Poachers

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Mike Chase knows elephants are in trouble.

Chase, a conservation biologist and founder of Elephants Without Borders, this year began what will become the most extensive count of great mammals on the African continent ever. In partnership with Vulcan, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's investment company, Chase's aptly named Great Elephant Census aims to document more than 90 percent of the world's pachyderms in 21 countries. Six months in, the numbers are sobering.

"Depending on what day you catch me on, some days leave me inspired and other days incredibly depressed," Chase told The Huffington Post from Botswana.

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Mike Chase.

More than 20,000 elephants were poached in Africa in 2013, slaughtered for their prized tusks that can fetch more than $1,500 a pound. Despite ongoing efforts to curb the ivory trade -- including a new ban in the U.S. and several highly publicized crushes of ivory caches -- poaching will wipe out 20 percent of Africa's elephants in the next decade if current trends continue.

"These are unsustainable rates of killing," Chase said.

Many high-profile names have signed onto the anti-poaching movement, and there's strong support from government agencies in Africa. But Chase said there really isn't an accurate count for how many elephants remain on the continent. Some elephant groups, thought to be thriving, are already doomed, he said.

"Ethiopia's Babile Elephant Sanctuary, which was believed to have had possibly 300 elephants -- we only counted 36," Chase said. There's "one bull left in that herd. Once he's gone, that's it. It's no longer viable. They will be wiped out, the last herd in the horn of Africa."

Several high-profile elephant killings have made headlines over the past few months, including the slaughter of Satao, a famed 45-year-old bull whose tusks almost reached the ground. His face had been so badly mutilated it took nearly 10 days to confirm his identity.

Chase and his team were in Kenya in April, and are believed to be some of the last people to capture the "free-roaming lord of the African savannah" on film. Though the elephant had been a prime target for poachers for decades, his death sent waves throughout the conservation community.

"When I started on this project, hoping that I could leave people inspired and motivated with some good news about the fate of elephants, [now] I feel as though the only good I'm doing is recording the extinction of one of the most magnificent animals that ever walked the earth," Chase said.

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Satao, seen in April.

Yet, hope remains, and Chase said efforts to protect these giants should be applauded. Local support to save the elephants is thriving, and he said researchers with the Great Elephant Census have found herds previously unknown to science with viable populations that can still rebound. He said he insists on including local scientists and conservationists in each country to address the poaching crisis -- an "Africa problem" that he said needs local support.

"A big push is to build a coalition of governments, scientists, NGOs, other wildlife champions to come together to reverse this crisis," Kathleen Gobush, Vulcan's senior project developer for wildlife, told HuffPost. "It's difficult to conserve what you don't know."

Some of the most encouraging signs are the men and women on the ground serving as de facto bodyguards to the large mammals under threat.

"These people on the ground who are so devoted and driven, with no financial gain at all, are trying to secure a future for wildlife," Chase said. "Guys who haven't been paid in months, and they're still going out on foot patrol. Their morale is so low, but they go out on a daily basis and are so dedicated and devoted.

"The positives that come out of [something like Satao's death] is that people will say enough is enough, so hopefully we can labor on."

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