Before the war of 96/97, forest elephants Loxodonta cyclotis were widespread in Kahuzi Biega National Park. Some would even have that they were a menace, occasionally leaving the forest and raiding the crops of surrounding villages. All forest treks were also considerably riskier; the last thing you’d want to do is get in one’s way.
These days, stumbling across an elephant is a rare occurrence (although one of our patrol teams spotted a troupe only two days ago!). Few, if any species of animal found in the park took as heavy a toll as the elephants during the wars and unrest of the late late ’90s and early ’00s. This blog is being written from the Tshivanga Visitors Centre, next to a table on which is piled just a tiny fraction of the skeletons of elephants massacred during this period, a sad and daily reminder of their loss. Just a few years ago, it was even thought that every last one of the forest elephants in the high altitude sector of the park, which is currently the only sector open to tourism, had disappeared.
Luckily, we were wrong.
Today we are seeing more and more signs of elephants, with tracks and droppings regularly being spotted by our patrols and research and monitoring team, and even the occasional picture caught by one of our camera traps. Signs are even more promising in the much larger lowland sector, although this region is much less accessible to visitors.
Nevertheless, the elephants are not in the clear. As human populations in the region grow, and industrial logging and mining spreads, roads and settlements are encroaching deeper into the forest. Forest elephant range is becoming increasingly restricted and fragmented, compromising their chances of survival. The park continues to do its best to protect the integrity of its borders, but with limited human resources and 6,000 sq km of terrain to cover, the challenges are great. In addition to our community conservation and sensitisation programmes, we hope that tourism will give people alternative income streams and reduce some of the pressure on the park. We also hope for your support and encouragement in this endeavour.