A Herd of Elephants is Rewilding Virunga National Park

They're causing unexpected transformation to the area.

Savannah elephants graze in the park.
Savannah elephants graze in the park.

Virunga National Park

A herd of around 580 African elephants entered Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from neighboring land, causing an unexpected transformation to the park. The elephants have torn through trees and knocked down bushes, along with the 120 or so elephants already in Virunga. And conservationists are ecstatic.

What looks like destruction is key for the area as the animals are transforming the landscape back to a grassland savanna. As the elephants destroy invasive growth, they make room for grazing animals and wildlife species that have not been in the park for several decades including buffalo, warthogs, and a pair of lions. 

“What this shows is that, even in incredibly challenging environments and an area that has been beset by conflict for the last few decades, through the hard work and commitment of the Virunga Rangers, it is possible to create the conditions to restore and promote the return of species and protect biodiversity more broadly,” Joel Wengamulay, Virunga director of external affairs, tells Treehugger. 

warthogs
Warthogs have returned to the park. Virunga National Park

After decades of poaching in Africa, the appearance of an elephant group this large is very unusual. They crossed into the park from neighboring Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park this summer and, so far, have decided to stay. 

“This is a really incredible example of rewilding our planet by giving nature a bit of help and then letting the elephants, in this case, take care of the rest,” Wes Sechrest, Global Wildlife Conservation chief scientist and CEO, said in a statement. 

“Providing the conditions for nature to recover is critical to the future of our planet as we tackle climate change, wildlife extinction and pandemics. Virunga is demonstrating that it is possible for us to not only protect wildlife and wildlands, but to restore them in ways that will help ensure a healthier planet.” 

Keeping Away Poachers and Militia

aerial shot of elephants at Virunga
There are nearly 600 elephants in the new herd. Virunga National Park

In recent years, small groups of elephants would move back and forth between the two parks, according to Virunga. But poachers and armed members of militia who hunt the animals would scare them away. Virunga staff members have been working to keep the militia out of the park and have developed programs to interact with the community. 

Virunga was the first national park to be established in Africa. It’s home to more species of birds, reptiles, and mammals than any other protected area on the continent.  

Virunga staff members say they find much hope in the elephants’ presence. 

“Nobody would have thought this possible 20 or even 10 years ago, and it demonstrates that the work to restore stability to the area and reduce opportunities for armed groups that operate in and around Virunga National Park can lead to incredible conservation successes,” Wengamulay says. 

“This really provides a beacon of hope for other organisations working to support wildlife conservation in challenging contexts and reaffirms that anti-poaching efforts and collaboration with local communities can lead to such fantastic outcomes.” 

elephant and calf
The elephants arrived in summer. Virunga National Park

The presence of the elephants comes during an exceptionally difficult time for Virunga. In April, a dozen Virunga rangers, a driver, and four community members were killed in an attack by a militia group.  

In addition, the park has been closed to tourism since March due to the pandemic, causing serious financial strain. 

“The financial damage to Virunga National Park and the local economy of the closure of tourism activities is extremely serious. The local economy and population, being direct beneficiaries of the tourism industry, are facing significant economic strain. The closure has had very significant effects on Virunga’s finances with around 40% of park revenue disappearing overnight,” Wengamulay says. 

“This presents major challenges to ensuring that conservation efforts continue uninterrupted, however, the highest priority is given to maintaining the crucial work of rangers in protecting Virunga’s wildlife and the local population. And the park has managed, to this point, to continue to fulfil its duties and responsibilities as regards both the wildlife, flora and fauna at the park and the local communities that the park supports – and the return of the elephants is a shining example of this.” 

Now the question is whether the new elephants will stick around. 

“We hope so! The park is continuing to focus on improving the security situation and undertaking regular de-snaring sweeps and activities in partnership with local communities,” Wengamulay says. 

“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 commitment to maintain the conditions that meant the herd migrated back to this place.” 

Supported by Leonardo DiCaprio, Global Wildlife Conservation, Emerson Collective, and the European Commission, the park launched a Virunga Fund earlier this year to provide urgent support for the park.