The Democratic Republic of Congos’ Virunga National Park is probably best known for the mountain gorillas that inhabit the southern areas. But Africa’s oldest park is also one of the few places where both the prototypical savannah elephants as well as forest elephants with small, round ears and straight sharp tusks pointed downwards, are found together. Occasionally even intermingling.
If Virunga’s inhabitants are legendary, so are the Park’s challenges. Decades of war have taken their toll. Earlier this summer eleven rangers were killed when they were attacked by a combined force of uniformed rebels, and Mai Mai who were naked except for the charms they wear to protect them from bullets.
Four million people live in and around the park and at least three rebel militia groups prey on the parks resources, putting the lives of animals and the rangers that protect them in constant danger.
Consequently, Virungas elephant population has gone from an estimated 8,000 in the 1980’s to only 400 today.
Save the Elephants
In late July Kenya based Save the Elephants was asked to place tracking collars on several elephants in the hopes of protecting the last of Virunga’s herds from poachers. The collars provide real-time monitoring of elephant movements, easily visualized on Google Earth-based systems and invaluable for security managers to plan the locations of patrols to effectively protect the herds.
While they were in the field Save the Elephants noticed something interesting about the elephants behavior. Could it be an adaptation to poaching?
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Elephants distinguish Rangers from Poachers
“Several elephant families were clustered around ranger posts, suggesting they had learned to distinguish the heavily armed rangers as harmless, as distinct from the poachers. In one rebel-afflicted area, elephants had adopted a ranger checkpoint where trucks laden with charcoal and hardwoods rumbled through every few minutes, yet somehow the elephants sensed that they were safe there and walked close to the voluble rangers,” says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Kenya based Save the Elephants.
Elephants being able to distinguish between rangers and poachers will probably come as no surprise to readers of SavingWild.com. Elephants are smart, sensitive, loyal, and aware. Their behavior reminds me of the gorillas who learned to dismantle poacher’s snares.
I’m impressed and delighted by these animals adaptations but also sad that everything we as humans have been doing has hardly dampened the poaching epidemic, leaving these animals to figure it out for themselves.
What about you, what do you think about this new behavior from the elephants?