Impacts on transboundary elephant movements between Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area, Uganda and Parc National des Virunga, Democratic Republic of Congo.


Michael Keigwin, Veronica Wabukawo, Samuel K. Wasser and Colin A. Chapman

Date Published



The Albertine Rift includes one of Africa’s largest network of protected areas, which interfaces to the west with the Virunga National Park (VNP), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and to the east with Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area (QECA), Uganda. Human impacts have dramatically influenced this landscape. In the 1920s competition for land between agriculture and hunting resulted in the formation of QECA and the subsequent advancement of agriculture and rising human population densities left QECA surrounded by subsistence agriculture. War, poaching, and agriculture have led to significant changes in mega-herbivore numbers and distribution. Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area (QECA) in Uganda and Virunga National Park (VNP) in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are contiguous and have a shared elephant population. Both countries have experienced periods of large scale poaching and instability.

Here we examine movements of elephants across the Ishasha River separating DRC and Uganda and how the direction of these movements was influenced by asymmetries in poaching between these two countries. We hypothesize that elephants avoid areas with high levels of poaching. The region was once recognised for supporting the largest biomass of mega-herbivore in Africa (Coe et al. 1976). Since independence in the DRC in 1960 and in Uganda 1962, both countries experienced severe poaching, but at different times (Douglas-Hamilton et al. 1980; Eltringham and Malpas 1980; Verschuren 1993). The elephant population in QECA declined from 4,755 individuals in 1967 (Eltringham 1977) to 150 individuals by 1980, with 346 elephants recorded moving across the Ishasha River into VNP (Douglas- Hamilton et al. 1980). Poaching was brought under
control in QECA in 1980 (Eltringham and Malpas 1980; Kayanja and Douglas-Hamilton 1983) and populations recovered (Olivier et al. 1989). By 2006, the QECA population was 2959 (Keigwin 2005) and in 2012, Wanyama et al. (2014) reported 3018 elephants. In VNP elephant numbers crashed from 3293 in 1959 to 650 in 2001 (Mertens 1983; Sikubwabo and Mubalama 2003). However, following the civil war in Rwanda in 1994 between 1.5-2 million refugees fled into DRC resulting in uncontrollable poaching and deforestation, which culminated with VNP being placed on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger (UNEP-WCMC 2011).

During the 2001-2003 research period, poaching in the VNP was very high (Wasser et al. 2015) and we heard 50 to 120 gun shots/day. Rangers in VNP were unpaid between 1996 and 2004 and in that time a fifth of the 500-rangers were killed (UNEP-WCMC 2011). Between 1998 and 2007, the International Rescue Committee recorded 5.4 million human deaths above the norm in eastern DRC (90% due to malnutrition and disease). The local population in the DRC were very unsupportive of the park, as the park prevented them from obtaining needed food. Poaching at this time was largely under control in QECA (Mulalama 2000; Keigwin 2005; Mushenzi 2002). Migration of elephants across the small Ishasha River that separates QECA and VNP has likely always occurred (Eltringham and Malpas 1980; Keigwin 2001; 2005). However, recently such transboundary movements likely served as a strategy by elephants to avoid poaching by taking refuge in the more protected area (Wanyama et al. 2014; Table 1).

Counts from aerial surveys have been carried out across QECA and VNP since the 1960s. A summary of published and unpublished counts has been compiled (Wanyama et al. 2014).