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On the 23 July 2007 the largest massacre of seriously endangered primates in over 40 years occurred in Virunga National Park in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. A Silver-Back Alpha male, “Senkekwe,” the leader of the group was brutally assassinated, shot 5 times as he beat his chest while trying to defend his family. Three females were also shot, one of them was also partially burnt in a further act of sadism. One of the females had a young 3 month-old baby and the other was heavily pregnant. The baby was later found and despite severe stress and dehydration, it survives in captivity today but can never return to the bush. At the time the motivations for the killings were not entirely clear, but subsequent investigations point to a connection to the illegal charcoal production industry operating in Virunga National Park. It appears that these killings were a statement of power, a warning from the Charcoal businessmen designed to put the struggling conservation authorities in their place and have them back down in their attempt to derail the illegal charcoal industry in Virunga National Park.

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Charcoal is the primary cooking fuel in this impoverished, perennial conflict zone, utilized by locals as well as thousands of refugees who are displaced into the area by conflict. The illegal manufacture of Charcoal is one of the primary economies of the region, put in place by unscrupulous member of the business community working with rebel military groups as well as bad elements of the Congolese army and a few corrupt senior members of the Congolese Conservation Authority, the ICCN. The extreme poverty of the region means that survival by any means necessary is the norm for most people. That includes utilizing the National Park in any way they can to make money. As a result there is mass complicity in the illegal charcoal industry, from the top businessmen exporting it to Rwanda at huge profit, to the poorest of refugees who mule the charcoal out of the jungle for a pittance.

Virunga National Park, Africa’s first National Park, is the home of the extremely endangered mountain gorilla of which only 680 remain. It is also the only source of hardwood in the war-ravaged region from which to make good quality charcoal. The charcoal manufacturers use the rebel occupation to mask a business whereby they illegally cut down trees at an industrial rate, devastating huge swathes of the Park in the process. There is a resultant clash with key members of the Congolese Conservation Authority who are incorruptible and very courageous.

Complicating things further is the fact that two major rebel armies occupy the park, the CNDP under rebel Congolese General Laurent Nkunda, and their sworn enemies, the FDLR Interhamwe, the hardcore Hutu genociders who have lived in the forests since they were chased there after the Rwandan genocide. At least five smaller militia groups operate throughout the park. The Conservation Rangers of Virunga are essentially attempting to practice conservation in the middle of a war zone, desperate to protect 280 Congolese Mountain Gorillas, one third of the total mountain gorilla population alive today. Embattled conservation Rangers have been threatened, displaced, tortured and killed as a result of this clash of political and economic wills. 110 Rangers have been killed and many more wounded in the last ten years as part of their courageous efforts to protect the Gorillas of Virunga. The Rangers receive a salary based purely on donations from two wildlife NGO’s. It is a tiny amount, around $10 a month on average, and still these men perform one of the most dangerous jobs in the world of wildlife conservation. The DRC has the highest toll of human casualties of any country since the Second World War, a figure in the region of 5.4 million dead as a result of war and subsequent population displacement, disease, starvation and ongoing militia violence. Today the Gorilla sector of Virunga is occupied by rebel forces under General Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of War Crimes. The Congolese Conservation Authority, the ICCN, have been chased from this sector and are barred from entering this area of Virunga National Park. They have been told they will be killed if they attempt it. General Nkunda has established his own parallel conservation authority, made up of a corrupt, inept warden and inexperienced Rangers. The gorillas remain at risk, with the easy transmission of human to animal disease the biggest threat to their survival.

At present the Rangers of the ICCN are acting against the Charcoal industry with roadblocks and active patrols into rebel held territory. This action threatens one of the biggest economies in the region and is a very dangerous exercise. Despite death threats, the increasing wrath of the FDLR rebel faction and the patrols coming under attack, they are pushing ahead. The Congolese Army general for the region has agreed to support them in their efforts, but until General Laurent Nkunda agrees to allow the proper Congolese Conservation authorities back into the Gorilla sector, there are no guarantees as to the safety of our rarest, most magnificent primates. Virunga National Park is arguably the most bio-diverse National Park in the world, the future of this park, not just that of the Congolese Mountain Gorilla, is also at stake.

Brent Stirton

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