WINDHOEK, Namibia (AP) -- The world's largest land-based census of wildlife began Wednesday across a huge swath of northwestern Namibia, World Wildlife Fund officials said.
The annual animal census, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, came as the American agency prepared to announce that it is ending conservation funding in Namibia a year earlier that previously planned.
Wildlife in Namibia has increased since the U.S. agency began funding community conservation programs in 1993. To date, the United States has given $41.6 million to programs to help people care for natural resources and benefit from the tourism generated.
"Only a few years ago, local people viewed wildlife only as competitors for food with their goats and other livestock and as potential dangers, but all that has now changed," said World Wildlife spokesman Chris Weaver.
Weaver, whose organization manages the U.S. funds, said the conservation programs allowed animal species to flourish and made poaching "virtually extinct."
He said conservation efforts since 1995 had increased Namibia's lion population from 30 to 130, dramatically raised the number of cheetahs, and nearly doubled Namibia's black rhino population. Namibia had about 7,500 elephants in 1995, but now has 26,000, he said.
Teams of game scouts, conservationists and scientists expect to find even higher numbers this year as they fan out to count elephants, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, oryx, giraffes, mountain zebras and springbok on 16 million acres of wildlife reserves.
Besides conserving wildlife, U.S.-funded programs in Namibia have generated income from tourism, creating 946 permanent and 6,200 part-time jobs, Weaver said.
U.S. officials planned to announce the cancellation of funds in Windhoek on Thursday. U.S. government spokesman Raymond Castillo would not comment on why the funding was being cut, but said the program had been tremendously successful.