Elephants return to conflict-ridden national park

The appearance of nearly 600 elephants in Virunga National Park, in the DRC, suggests it's safer for wildlife than it once was.

photographs by Brent Stirton
Published 2 Apr 2021, 06:12 BST
Virunga Elephants Lead
Last summer, a herd of nearly 600 savanna elephants crossed from Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The migration was thrilling for Virunga’s embattled rangers; the elephant population in the park had dwindled to about 120 in recent years due to poaching and the threat of violence.
Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Savanna elephants have returned en masse to Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s a development that has stunned park staff and signalled a turning point in Virunga’s quest for stability in a region beset by violence for decades. In August nearly 600 elephants crossed into Virunga from neighbouring Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. More than six months later, they’re still there, suggesting they feel secure in their new home.

“There has been no greater expression of Virunga coming back to life,” says park director Emmanuel de Merode. “I arrived to the Congo 30 years ago, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

A two-million-acre expanse of steppes, savannah, volcanoes, and snowfields along the DRC’s eastern border, Virunga is vulnerable to attacks by militia groups, poaching, hunting for bushmeat, unlicensed fishing, and illegal tree cutting for charcoal. More than 200 rangers have been killed protecting the park in the past 25 years, including 21 this year alone. In late February the Italian ambassador to the DRC was killed in a suspected kidnapping attempt near the park’s southern border. And de Merode himself was shot in 2014 in an attempted assassination.

Rangers explore the ruins of the Rwindi Hotel, located in the center of Virunga. Before the region descended into violence in the 1990s, the hotel hosted the DRC’s former dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, as well as tourists eager to view the area’s abundant wildlife.
Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

This violence has had an inevitable effect on wildlife too. In the 1970s the Greater Virunga Landscape (which includes parks in Rwanda and Uganda) had the highest biomass of large mammals in the world, including its famous mountain gorillas and a thriving population of about 8,000 savanna elephants—highly perceptive and intelligent creatures that can weigh up to seven tons and live for 70 years.

But that population began to decline when the Rwandan genocide—closely followed by the First and Second Congo Wars—plunged the area into conflict in the 1990s. Some elephants fled to safer territory, and many fell to poachers, as impoverished locals and trafficking networks sought to profit off of the ivory tusks. In recent years, park officials estimated that just 120 elephants remained in Virunga.

Virunga ranger Bagurubumwe Chuhoze Deogene’s widow and three young sons gather around his grave at his funeral in 2020. More than 200 rangers have been killed protecting the park in the past 25 years, including 21 rangers since the beginning of 2021.
Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Rangers patrol Lake Edward, an area of Virunga prized by militia groups for its fish. According to Virunga’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, illegal fishing on Lake Edward generates $60 million in proceeds each year.
Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

“When there’s bullets flying through the air, whether it’s fighting between militias, or people targeting the elephants directly, they’ll pick up and move,” says Anne-Marie Weeden, a conservationist and founder of Uganda-based Petrichor Africa, which advises Africa’s wildlife and conservation sectors.

Government conservation ranger Faustin Gakuru, 23, recovers from gunshot wounds in a Goma hospital room. In 2020, Gakuru was working with a group of Virunga rangers to build an electric fence along the park’s border when they were attacked. The rebels oppose the fence because it interferes with their access to the park and its resources.
Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Virunga’s lakes once hosted the world’s largest hippo population, but poaching and habitat loss has decimated the animals. By 2016, their numbers had dwindled to about 2,400 – down over 90% from their population of 30,000 in the 1970s.
Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Conservation ranger Chantal Kahinda Vinywa keeps watch from her observation post on Lake Edward. The rangers are even more concerned about the area than usual; the savanna elephants that migrated to Virunga from Uganda have largely congregated in the nearby Ishasha corridor, an area frequented by rebels traveling to the lake.

Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Then, last August, they came back.

“The apparent surge of elephants in Virunga is very encouraging, because it means that Virunga must be safer than it used to be,” says Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, whose team affixed 15 radio collars to elephants in Virunga in 2015 to help the park staff monitor them.

The size of this herd, which de Merode and his colleagues have mostly ogled from a surveillance plane, is extraordinary, he says. Historically, small groups of elephants have shuffled back and forth between the parks, but in recent years, they’ve mostly stayed away. Now de Merode was able to look out the cockpit window and see elephants speckling the grasslands in every direction.

Hope in time of disease, violence

The elephants’ return has been a beacon of hope for the park, galvanising the rangers at an otherwise demoralising time. COVID-19, which came in the wake of a crushing Ebola outbreak, has pushed the already struggling communities surrounding Virunga into further economic despair. The result, de Merode says, has been a surge in violence as increasingly desperate locals are more likely to join militias.

In spite of this turmoil, Virunga’s staff has managed to prevent elephant poaching entirely since the new herd arrived. It’s a Sisyphean feat, given that the elephants have congregated largely in the turbulent Ishasha corridor, an area coveted by militia groups for its access to Lake Edward and its all-important fish.

In January six rangers were killed in an ambush nearby, likely in retaliation for new electric fencing that cut off the militia groups’ access to the lake, de Merode says. A month later the groups again clashed with rangers. De Merode, providing surveillance support from a plane above, watched nervously as 200 elephants scattered to escape the gunfire.

The newly returned elephants may also come into conflict with local communities, which could lead to retaliatory killings. After a pair of roaming elephants killed two farmers just outside the park, park officials said they’d extend the fence to keep the elephants away from human settlements.

De Merode says he’s convinced Virunga’s staff will be able to keep the community safe from elephants and the elephants safe from poachers. He expresses excitement for the changes the creatures might bring to the park. Elephants are voracious and destructive grazers, which can actually be beneficial to their habitats. When elephants barrel through a forest, they tend to knock down trees, which in turn leads to more intense seasonal wildfires, lower humidity in the soil, and therefore more nutritious grass.

The return of so many elephants to Virunga has cheered rangers in an otherwise gloomy year. By reshaping the grasslands, they hope the elephants will positively impact the park’s other grazers, too.

Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Such dynamics will allow other grazers in the park such as warthogs, and antelope species like kobs and topi, to flourish as well, de Merode says. “Elephants could create a cycle that may one day bring us back to the highest large mammal biomass on Earth in Virunga.”

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