The Rangers of Virunga by Brent Stirton

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The Rangers of Virunga

By world renowed photographer Brent Stirton.

Credits: Therese Hart

This magnificent photo doc is a microcosm of what is going on throughout the continent. His essay catalogues the issues Africa faces with the environment, aid, humanitarian and refugee crisis, deforestation, wildlife protection, religion and more.


Brent Stirton Website

On the 23 July 2007 the largest massacre of seriously endangered primates in recent 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 partially burnt in a mysterious 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. The body of yet another female mountain gorilla was found a few days after the initial discovery. The Congolese Conservation Authority Rangers moving amongst this gruesome discovery were quiet, no-one spoke, when they did it was only to voice deep anger. As someone who has covered African conflict for a long time it was one of the most sobering experiences I have ever had amongst African men. This attack was an assault not only on a critically endangered species but also on the identity of these rangers, who see themselves and their entire reason for being as inextricably interwoven in the care of these gorillas.

At the time the motivations for the killings were not entirely clear, but subsequent investigations conducted by a galvanized ICCN (Congolese Conservation Authority,) 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.

Its’ complex but it’s important to make the connection here:

Charcoal is the primary cooking fuel in this impoverished, perennial conflict zone, it is utilized by locals as well as many thousands of refugees who are displaced into the area by multiple conflicts which stretch back to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The illegal manufacture of Charcoal is one of the primary economies of the region, created 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 top tier 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 and bake wood 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 traumatized but incorruptible and very courageous.

Complicating things further is the fact that two major rebel armies occupy the park: the CNDP under rebel Congolese Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda, and their sworn enemies, the FDLR “Interhamwe”, the hardcore Hutu genocidaires who have lived in the forests ever since being chased there after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. At least 5 smaller opportunist militia groups also 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 the 280 Congolese Mountain Gorillas, one third of the total mountain gorilla population left 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 died and many more have been wounded in the last ten years as part of their efforts to protect the Gorillas of Virunga. Much of that time their work has been unpaid. The Rangers receive a salary based purely on donations from two wildlife NGO’s. It is a tiny amount, around $15 a month on average, and still these men perform one of the most dangerous jobs in the world of wildlife conservation. It feels inadequate to call them Hero’s of Conservation.

The big picture of what is happening to conservation in the DRC has to consider the following:

The DRC has the highest toll of human casualties of any country since the Second World War, a staggering figure in the region of 5.4 million dead as a result of conflict 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 executed if they attempt it.

General Nkunda has established his own parallel conservation authority, made up of a corrupt, inept warden and several inexperienced Rangers. The gorillas remain at critical risk, with the easy transmission of human to animal disease the biggest threat to their survival. On the two trips I made to see the gorillas with the CNDP rebels, on both occasions they failed to observe even the most basic safety protocols, including maintaining a 10 meter distance at all times from the animals. What I saw was 40 heavily armed men tramping around the bewildered, nervous gorillas, on two occasions there was physical contact between men and gorillas. The possibility of disease transmission is very real and could wipe out entire families with a dose of something as seemingly benign as Influenza, a common human illness life-threatening to fragile mountain gorillas.

The number of surviving mountain gorillas is so small that a human to primate disease transmission could easily reduce the numbers of DRC mountain gorillas to such an extent that successful, healthy genetic reproduction could become impossible. This is not a hysterical over-reaction from the green section, it is a hard fact that demands action in real time right now.

At present the Rangers of the ICCN are acting against the Charcoal industry with roadblocks and active patrols into the non-gorilla section of rebel held territory with the help of the UN. They have also arrested and placed under trial 6 Rangers and one senior Warden for complicity in the Charcoal industry. These courageous actions threaten one of the biggest economies in this impoverished region and are a very dangerous exercise. Despite death threats, the increasing wrath of the FDLR/CNDP rebel factions and the Ranger patrols coming under attack, the ICCN Rangers 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 with full authority, there are no guarantees as to the safety of our rarest, most magnificent primates, trapped in these circumstances in the most bio-diverse National Park in the world.


Source: Brent Stirton