By Joost Philippa

Last week I got a call from Dr. Eddy, our head veterinarian in the Democratic Republic of Congo: an elephant had been observed with what appeared to be a wire snare around his hind leg in the Central Sector of Virunga National Park, in the area between Mabenga and Rwindi. This is the same area where Gorilla Doctors helped place satellite collars on elephants in 2015.

Like elsewhere in Africa, the illegal ivory trade is decimating elephant numbers in Virunga. The park has lost about 95 percent of its elephants, and is currently home to less than 200 of them. There are about 80 elephants in the Mabenga area, which is home to one of the park’s most important populations to have survived the war. This area of Virunga National Park is still heavily frequented by armed poachers and roving militias, which is why we were protected by a supporting team of armed rangers. I have the greatest respect for Virunga’s rangers, who risk their lives on a daily basis to protect iconic species in Virunga like elephants and gorillas.

Photo via Joost Philippa

Photo via Joost Philippa

The next day, the animal was spotted alone, crossing the road into a more open area of forest close to the ranger post. My bags were packed and ready, so I got straight into the car for the 5-hour drive. By the time I got there, the elephant had moved into an area of dense forest and had rejoined the herd of approximately 45 elephants, making it much harder to intervene, so we postponed until the next day.

Anesthetizing elephants in the forest is not easy. Under ideal circumstances, we would use helicopters to locate the animals and separate the targeted animal from the herd, as the herd’s instinct is to protect their family. We didn’t have any of this: we were on foot. Fortunately, however, our team of rangers featured some highly skilled trackers.

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Early the next morning, the animal was seen crossing the road, back into the less dense forest, so we went looking for him. The skill of the trackers astonished me – every freshly broken branch or flattened bit of grass was inspected, and soon we were following him. We heard branches breaking nearby, and occasionally we caught a glimpse of the magnificent animal. Unlike the gorillas, the elephants are not habituated to human presence, so they are not easy to get close to.

Despite being injured, he continued to move at a fast pace, away from us through the thick bushes, and we lost track of him for a period of time. Soon after we located his trail, the trackers noticed small drops of fresh blood. It took a good 2.5 hours before we got the next glimpse. After 3 hours of tracking, we came to an open area, where I could see that he was clearly limping, and although I could not see the snare, I knew that an intervention might be necessary.

I prepared the darts and the dart gun, but it was clear the elephant knew he was being followed (he circled back to the same spot twice, as if to check that we were still there). He then made a straight dash back to the dense side of the road.

We caught sporadic glimpses and continued to follow the small drops of blood, but he stayed too far away for us to attempt to anesthetize him.

And then, after having followed him for more than four hours, we heard a loud splash. We rushed to get there, but by then he had made his way across a wide river and into a more remote and densely forested space.

Photo via Joost Philippa

Photo via Joost Philippa

The next day we spent many hours tracking in hopes of finding the injured guy. Despite being very large, elephants are surprisingly elusive in the forest.

Thanks again to the extraordinary skills of the Virunga rangers, we managed to find some fresh footprints, and followed until we found a small group of 6 elephants. Although the group did not contain the elephant we were looking for, it was amazing to watch these huge, majestic creatures at home in the forest from just a couple of meters. We were close enough to feel the vibrations of their infrasound communication resonating in our chests – a very humbling experience.

Although we were unable to catch him, we tried our best to help the ensnared elephant, and if he comes out of his dense hiding place in the forest, we will be back for another attempt to help him as soon as we can.