A Massive Elephant Herd Has ‘Taken Everyone by Surprise’ in Its Return to Virunga National Park

A Massive Elephant Herd Has ‘Taken Everyone by Surprise’ in Its Return to Virunga National Park
Aw! (Photo: Virunga National Park)

In a rare sign that not everything is terrible, elephants are returning to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 1980, the lush 7,770-square-kilometre park was home to an estimated 8,000 elephants. Yet in recent years, the area has seen an increased presence of rebel militia groups that poach the animals for their ivory tusks and to make room for illegal agriculture. These groups are dangerous to people and animals alike — the population underwent a heartbreakingly swift decline. In 2015, fewer than 500 elephants were left in the wildlife reserve, and by early 2020, there were only about 120 remaining.

Amid the covid-19 pandemic, Virunga National Park saw a severe strain on its tourism revenue, so it had a harder time paying to arm guards and protect the area from these groups. As a result, attacks on animals and people surged. This past April, the park saw a tragic attack. Armed rebels killed four civilians and 13 staff members. It was clear officials needed to take urgent steps to protect wildlife, particularly animals on the brink such as the elephants, as well as staff and the surrounding communities.

With emergency funding help from UNESCO, the park erected walls to keep intruders out, hired armed guards of their own, and hired people to remove snare traps that poachers had laid. The park also partnered with nearby communities to provide them with protection services and economic help.

“The park has an ambitious strategy…to support the socioeconomic development of the wider region and provide economic opportunities and livelihoods for the approximately 5 million people that live within a day’s walk of the park, and these efforts are all contributing to improved security situations and reducing the presence of armed groups,” Nick Colwill, a spokesperson for the park, said in an email.

Now, elephant populations have made a stunning improvement. This past July, a herd of some 580 African elephants wandered into the park’s savanna area from the nearby Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, just over the country’s border. This brought the total number of these magnificent creatures up to 700 or so.

Savanna elephants in Virunga National Park. (Photo: Virunga National Park)Savanna elephants in Virunga National Park. (Photo: Virunga National Park)

Without them around, invasive plant species ran rampant with no heavy-footed mammals around to trample them. The food chain was thrown out of whack, causing other species’ populations to decline, too. But the elephants’ return has ushered in sweeping, ecosystem-wide benefits. Creatures including buffalo, Ugandan kob, warthogs, and topi — none of which had been seen in the previous two decades in the park — have made a comeback. Park officials even recently spotted two lions, which also haven’t been seen in decades.

“They’re restoring everything back to what it was 50 years ago and doing so much faster than we could have imagined,” Anthony Caere, an anti-poaching pilot at Virunga National Park, said in a statement. “If the elephants continue to stay here in these numbers, this place will look totally different in just a few years.”

To ensure that that happens, staff are taking more steps to continue to improve conditions in the wildlife reserve, bringing on extra security, undertaking more frequent sweeps of the park to find and remove snare traps, and engaging more nearby communities. The protection efforts have made a huge improvement in safety for elephants, other animals, and people.

“Herds of this size are very rare, so it’s an incredible success story — it’s the result of many years of work by Virunga’s Rangers, and it will take many more years of work to maintain and improve the conditions that meant the herd migrated back to the park,” said Colwill.

Topi are among the species starting to return to Virunga National Park's central savanna as the elephants clear the trees and bushes.  (Photo: Virunga National Park)Topi are among the species starting to return to Virunga National Park’s central savanna as the elephants clear the trees and bushes. (Photo: Virunga National Park)

No major attacks on humans or animals have taken place since Virunga’s increased protection efforts, but there’s still much more work to be done to improve conditions in surrounding areas. In November, after a deadly attack by rebel groups, three dozen human corpses were found in the park, though Colwill said the killings didn’t take place within the park’s confines nor were motives clear.

Still, the return of these elephants shows that it’s possible — even in times of extreme hardship — to launch successful conservation efforts, and that conservation efforts can also protect people.

“The migration of this herd with such numbers has taken everyone by surprise, and nobody would have thought that it was possible 20 or even 10 years ago, as the region was beset by conflict,” Colwill said. “Even in such circumstances, it is possible to create the conditions to restore and promote the return of species and protect biodiversity more broadly.”