In July, the Save the Elephants team flew to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo for an important but potentially dangerous mission. They set out to collar and track elephants to better understand the pressure the population faces and to better protect Virguna’s elephants from the threats they encounter. Of the estimated 8,000 elephants present in the park in the 1980s, it is thought that only 400 remain. Complicating the effort, eleven rangers were killed by rebels two weeks prior to the trip within an area of the park the team planned to visit.
Occupying over 3,000 square miles, Virunga contains within its borders both lava pools and mountains coated in snow, as well as a large variety of endangered plant and animal species found nowhere on earth—including both lowland gorillas and the dwindling elephant population.
The park is not only the frequent target of rebels and revolutionaries but also of a war-torn populace seeking out its ample resources of charcoal and animal products. Following the nearby 1994 Rwandan genocide, more than one million refugees moved to the area surrounding Virunga. Illegal charcoal harvesters have been known to kill mountain gorillas, operating under the belief that if the gorillas were not present, the park would not be worth protecting.
Over 140 rangers have died in the line of duty to protect wildlife from poachers, and it is currently rumored that members of the Congolese Revolutionary Army, M23, may have a base inside the park. Though it now enjoys a greater stability than it has in the past, Virguna remains a place fraught with hazards, at odds with its great natural beauty.
Park Director Emmanuel de Merode requested from Save the Elephants fifteen collars to track the remaining elephant population. Elephants can now be tracked in real time using Google Earth, via a system built in partnership between Save the Elephant and several other organizations, including Google itself. This method of tracking is more effective than ever before and serve as a vital tool in planning the deployment of patrols to guard elephants.
Using helicopters, several groups of elephants were identified and subsequently collared. Bulls in Virunga proved to be a particular challenge to the team, who faced several aggressive males defending both friends and females alike. In one incident, team vet Pete followed a large bull on foot rather than in the safety of the helicopter after an initial tranquilizer dose failed. Rather than risking shooting from the air and having another dart fail to stick properly, Pete snuck up behind the bull and injected it by hand. Typically wary of humans, the elephants seemed to be able to distinguish between the armed rangers and poachers, passing through a ranger checkpoints with seemingly few worries and none of their typical fear of being shot.
Although the focus of the mission was collaring, team members were also able to observe the unique mix of elephants that Virunga holds. Virunga is home to both traditional savannah elephants and smaller forest elephants, making it one of the few places in the world where both species occur. Despite being similar in appearance, the two are as genetically distinct from each other as they are from the more easily recognizable Asian elephant. Size is one of the more obvious differences between forest and savannah elephants, with forest elephants weighing about half as much as a savannah bull.
Although the focus of the mission was collaring, team members were also able to Numerous social groups within Virunga seemed unusual to the Save the Elephants team. An intermingled group of the two species was found, with one forest elephant bull and two savannah elephant bulls. The two species were not thought to mingle much—something that now requires further evaluation. One bull was found trailed by a four-year-old calf, with no females in sight. Male elephants are not typically part of the calf rearing process. Furthermore, a lone savannah bull was found far into the forest, while forest elephants were found out on the savannah. These unexpected discoveries served as a reminder of how important Virunga’s population is.
All told, it took over a week to fit the fifteen elephants with their radio collars. The collars will offer much-needed assistance to Virunga’s park rangers in keeping the elephants safe and guarded. As it has elsewhere in Africa—including in Save the Elephants’ Samburu, Kenya home base—these collars will hopefully be an invaluable tool for security managers and ensure a future for these special Virunga elephants.
-Written by Elizabeth Rogers