Update: Virunga’s Elephant Tracking Project

Elephant collaring2_wm

By Anthony Caere.

In late July of this year, Virunga National Park began attaching tracking collars to some of its elephants in an effort to better protect them. We wanted to let you know the program is going well and delivering the desired results. We can currently track 15 elephants using collars in conjunction with Google Earth. Rangers typically check in on the location of our collared elephants at least two times each day. Naturally, non-collared elephants mingle with the collared ones, so 15 collars allows us to keep tabs on entire herds. Whenever the system shows elephants moving toward a known threat, we take action. Rangers quickly move into a protective position and I take the plane up and do fly overs. This combined action makes it clear the elephants are being closely monitored and it serves as a significant deterrent to those wanting to harm them.

On each flight. I also count the number of elephants and monitor the various groups. Often groups will combine and it’s amazing to see how they move straight towards each other even when separated by distances up to 20 km (+12 miles). Seeing this really makes one appreciate the intelligence of elephants.

Soon we will be getting both radios that have GPS functionality and a 325 cm (128-inch) hi-definition screen for multi-layered visual monitoring. On a single screen, rangers at HQ will be able to simultaneously track collared elephants, the rangers protecting them, my flight path, and most importantly, those threatening the elephants — all precisely geo-located.


Zenith 701 Aircraft (courtesy of Zenith Aircraft Company)

Finally, Virunga is in the process of acquiring a Zenith 701 aircraft to help with elephant protection. This new aircraft is quite remarkable for several reasons. First, it can take off and land on runways as short as 150 meters (492 feet). If you look around on YouTube, you’ll find pilots taking off and landing this aircraft on as little as 31 meters (100 feet) of runway! Second, it uses only 15 liters (4 gallons) per hour, so in comparison to the park’s Cessna, it sips gas. And, because it works just fine using regular gas, it’s a full five times less expensive to run. The plane can also cruise comfortably at speeds of 65 km/hr (40 mph), which is a nice speed for tracking animals. Another benefit of being able to fly so slowly is we can fly the plane in the “doors off” configuration, which is helpful when taking photos.

By bringing all this technology together in such a way, we’re optimistic that Virunga’s elephant population can be stabilized and even grown. At the end of the day, every animal saved has to be considered a win.


  1. ingeborgh jennen November 29, 2015 Reply

    Fantastic what you are doing for Virunga’s elephants !…I am an elephant admirer; such highly intelligent and social animals deserve our protection !
    Was the collaring done by safe the elephants ?…I believe I recognized Saba Douglas Hamilton”s husband in the collaring video ?

  2. Peter Telford November 29, 2015 Reply

    Amazing what you’re doing and great to hear how you’re using technology to protect these animals.

  3. Noelle Jeanette November 29, 2015 Reply

    This is very exciting news. Very cool to hear how the progress is being made, gives me hope for the beloved elephants in the park. You are doing an awesome job. 🙂

  4. Author
    Robert Williams November 29, 2015 Reply

    Good eye, Ingeborgh. We were very fortunate to have the help of Iain Douglas-Hamilton, as well as Pete Morkel, Frank Pope, Jerenimo Lepirei, Mike Cranfield and Eddy Kambale. Many others were instrumental in this project, too.

    • Ingeborgh jennen November 30, 2015 Reply

      Then you had indeed THE very best people by your side to do the collaring.
      Pete Morkel; I believe I read his name in Tony Fitzjohns book. Wasn’t he involved in the translocation of the rhino’s from a zoo to Mkomazi ?

  5. gina November 29, 2015 Reply

    Fantastic. It’s so good to hear of these hopes, and technology helping to save the rangers to save and protect these precious animals.

  6. Gail Giddings November 29, 2015 Reply

    It does my heart good to hear about what all of you are doing to help these amazing animals. Please know that there are people all across the globe who applaud what you are doing. God bless.

  7. Anne November 29, 2015 Reply

    Great -I hope to get there someday to see the elephants and the rest of the park. Thank you for all you do!

  8. Patricia Le Foll November 29, 2015 Reply

    Bravo ! I love what you are doing for the elephants. Congratulations on ALL your endeavours. I admire you all. I think about the beauty of being a ranger, and wanting to be. I OFTEN think about all of your work, and about all of you, workers.

    Merci… Thank you. You are more loved than you know.

  9. Hugh November 30, 2015 Reply

    Great work. I am really encouraged to hear about it..

    Thank you..

  10. Dave November 30, 2015 Reply

    Great news! Outstanding efforts to protect Virunga’s elephants. How are the hippos doing these days? Last I heard, the hippo numbers were stable and slightly growing, but that was over a year ago.

  11. christine December 8, 2015 Reply

    What I love is the connection between the great work you are doing and all the people with a love of animals in cities around the world who are helpless to do anything about it. By keeping in touch with us and updating us (+ the amazing film on Netflix) you make us a part of it and I hope we help with donations in return. I know I will when I can!

    Keep up the great work and thank-you!

  12. Carey May 20, 2016 Reply

    So happy to hear about your work to protect these critically endangered animals.

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