The bodies of Mountain Gorillas killed in the massacre of the Rugendo family in July 2007, Virunga National Park, DR Congo.
The rangers step stealthily along the forest trails, on the lookout for poachers who come in silence to kill the animals of Virunga National Park, in Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse – made more perilous by the involvement of armed military groups and militias – but the rangers’ role is key to the survival of threatened species in this, Africa’s oldest national park.
Anti-poaching patrol, Virunga National Park, DRC.
Virunga provides the habitat for rare mountain gorillas, of which there are only an estimated 790 left on earth, as well as myriad other animals. It is also home to ruthless humans, intent on slaying the creatures in cold blood.
The carcass of an elephant killed in Virunga National Park, DR Congo.
The devastation of which the poachers are capable knows no bounds: murdered gorillas – one of the most endangered species on earth – plus tens of thousands of dead elephants, hippos, rhinos, and smaller animals such as impalas and birds. All these animals died not due to natural causes or conflict with other creatures but thanks to man’s greed – greed for the profits that are to be made from the trade in illegal ivory, bushmeat and wild animals in general.
A dead lion in Virunga National Park, DRC.
Poachers are active, organized criminal rings responsible for the decimation of many species and the extinction of others. The offenses of these and others are not limited to the poaching of animals, either. Of equal concern in Virunga is the destruction of hardwood trees for charcoal, which destroys the creatures’ habitats, bringing down their numbers further.
A Virunga National Park ranger poses with a poacher's ivory.
The Rugengo Gorilla Family Massacre
Sometimes there is simply no rhyme or reason for the killing of magnificent animals, no explanation except evil and greed. One of the worst cases of this sort of despicable slaughter occurred on the 22nd of July, 2007, when the bodies of five gorillas from the Rugendo family – including its giant silverback patriarch, Senkwekwe – were found, shot dead. This time, poachers weren’t believed to be responsible, because their habit is to cut off the heads, hands and feet of gorillas they kill in order to sell them on the black market. No, in this case, someone else was culpable.
Two orphaned mountain gorillas, whose parents were gunned down in a politically motivated attack.
After numerous investigations, it turned out that the orders for the killing were given by the corrupt warden of the park at the time, Honoré Mashagiro. Why? To try to frame the chief ranger Paulin Ngobobo, who was working to stamp out the charcoal trade and protect the gorillas. Mashagiro and his henchmen had been taking money to turn a blind eye to the illegal felling of hardwood and making of charcoal – the most important of local fuel sources. No one can be certain who pulled the triggers; but as for who orchestrated the slayings, one suspect stands out above all others: "Mashagiro had the gorillas killed to discredit Paulin," said a conservation researcher familiar with the case who asked to remain anonymous for fear of his life. "This wouldn't have been difficult. You can have someone killed for a crate of beer in Congo."
Dead bird found in a poacher's trap in Virunga National Park, DRC.
Rangers and Poaching
Virunga National Park relies on the rangers to keep the park and animals safe. These armed men get paid very little, the equivalent of about $30 dollars a month, but have a passion for their jobs. They need such zeal. Since 1996, over 140 rangers have been killed – many by militias and poachers – while working to protect the park.
Snares burning in Virunga National Park, DRC.
Exiled Hutu soldiers that fought and committed war crimes in Rwanda (and have since re-named themselves the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)) have used the forest as their base, as have Congolese troops. Some of these groups are involved in the making and selling of charcoal from hardwood.
An elephant slaughtered in Virunga National Park, DRC.
Poaching is also big business in the park. Elephant populations, for example, have been hit hard, with as much as one fifth of the population in the park killed in 2008 alone. Hippos are also killed in large numbers, and of course there is the killing of many other species for bushmeat.
A Virunga National Park Ranger holds up the pelt of an antelope. Behind him is the destruction caused by the illegal manufacture of charcoal.
Water buffalo and lions are other targets for the poachers – many of whom are actually members of the 5,000-strong Congolese army stationed in and around the park. There are only 500 rangers to keep the animals and park safe from them, which sounds like a losing battle from the start.
AK-47 in Virunga National Park, DRC.
The rangers are armed with AK-47s and other guns. Unfortunately, they sometimes need to defend themselves against those who shoot at them as they try to stop the wholesale slaughter of the park’s animals. They are also on guard for those "selling" park land – another criminal enterprise in which men pretend that an area is actually their farmland and sell it to unsuspecting peasants, who then discover it was actually parkland and cannot be used.
On the other side, the poachers use snares as well as guns for their filthy work. One of the saddest losses of 2010 was that of baby Nsekanabo, another critically endangered mountain gorilla. The rangers and park management performed an urgent intervention after the young gorilla was caught in a snare, tranquillizing his mother, removing the snare from his foot, and sewing up his mangled face. Unfortunately the autopsy showed that the infection in his foot had become systemic, killing him. Nsekanabo has been buried next to Senkwekwe, the big silverback that fell victim to the Rugendo massacre of 2007.
Hippo killed by Mai-Mai near Vitshumbi
Hippos are another major target for poachers. Just the other week a hippo died after a fight with another one but was found to have a snare on her foot. Because there might be accusations that the rangers would take the animal to eat it, the rangers burned the body in a local village.
Scarecrow ranger in Virunga National Park: The front line of conservation in Congo.
Strict rules are in place to prevent the eating of animals from the park for any reason, but that doesn't stop the practice. In 1976 there were 27,000 hippos in Lake Edward and its surrounding rivers, but by 2005 only 350 were left. Since then, hippo numbers have increased to 1,200 but are nowhere near what they should be.
Rangers on patrol in Lake Ishasha, Virunga National Park, DRC.
The rangers now have a new weapon against the poachers: bloodhounds trained by Dr. Marlene Zähner, one of the best in the world when it comes to ‘mantrailing' using dogs. Fourteen of the rangers will be the handlers in this new anti-poaching initiative.
A woman carrying charcoal is surprised by a Ranger on patrol in Virunga National Park, DR Congo.
Rangers and Charcoal
Apart from the poaching of animals, there is another major threat to Virunga – perhaps an even greater one: the felling of hardwood trees for charcoal. As of 2008, 98% of villagers in North Kivu burned charcoal for cooking, boiling water and for heat. As mentioned, militia and army personnel are both involved in the destruction of trees for this valuable resource. First they cut down the trees and then slowly burn the wood in mud kilns in the forest. There is a large amount of money to be made here – even more than from poaching, as Mark Jenkins has described in National Geographic.
Soldier caught making charcoal in Virunga National Park, DRC.
"This much charcoal cannot be transported without a fleet of trucks,” explained Jenkins in a 2008 article. “The Congolese army has the trucks, and it has suppliers in the forest: the Hutu militias. A sack of charcoal sells for $25 on average. Do the math: De Merode [a biological anthropologist] estimates that in 2006, when gorilla tourism brought in less than $300,000, the Virunga charcoal trade was worth more than $30 million."
A kiln to make charcoal illegally in Virunga National Park, DR Congo.
Of course, not only is the loss of the trees a tragedy in itself, it is also an effective loss of habitat for the mountain gorillas and other animals – a one-two punch, if you will. So it is that a large amount of the rangers’ time is spent fighting the charcoal trade. The militia responsible for much of the trade is the FDLR, the remnant of the Rwandan Hutu Power rebel group, which has killed many rangers in ambushes. One ranger was shot in April 2011, and the gorillas and other species can also get caught in the crossfire.
Poacher's kill in Virunga National Park, DRC.
Virunga National Park's rangers do a heroic job, risking life and limb to make the park safe for the animals and people. Thanks to their work, tourism has increased from nothing in 2008, to an industry that welcomed approximately 2,000 visitors in 2010, and numbers are growing steadily. The park management do their best to pay the rangers what they can and to look after the widows and families left behind when one of their number is killed. Yet more needs to be done. If you want to help protect the gorillas and other animals, or help the rangers with either their rations or salaries, donations can be made on the official site gorilla.cd.