Congo's Gorilla Tragedy

The men huddled under billowing green ponchos and shouldered their AK-47s nervously. Summer rains drenched the plains and canopied jungle of Virunga National Park, a vast preserve along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo that is home to an estimated 60 percent of the world's surviving mountain gorillas. The men allowed the rain to douse their cigarettes. Then, in single file, they began to move into the forest. Through the din of the storm, a shout quickly rose up.

The rangers found the first corpse less than a hundred yards away, in a grove of vines and crooked thicket. The mammoth gorilla lay on her side, a small pink tongue protruding slightly from her lips. She was pregnant and her breasts were engorged with milk for the baby that now lay dead inside her womb.

The rangers crowded around and caressed the gorilla's singed fur. They shook their heads and clicked their tongues with disapproval. One grabbed her hand and held it for a long time, his head bowed in grief. This gorilla—whom the rangers knew as intimately as they do all those who live in their sector of the park—was named Mburanumwe. Her killers had set her alight after executing her. Now her eyes were closed, as if in deep concentration. "My God," one ranger said in disgust, "they even burned her." Nearby the rangers found the bodies of two other adult females, all from the same 12-member family. Two infants had been orphaned. A male would be found dead the next day. The massacre, first discovered on July 23, could be the worst slaughter of mountain gorillas in the last quarter century.

Even the rangers—who live in a country where more than 4 million people may have been killed in factional fighting in the last decade—were shaken. Elections held a year ago were supposed to have quelled the demons that had fueled what many called Africa's "world war"—a vicious battle for power and resources between militias and even armies from neighboring countries. A shaky central government has taken power in Kinshasa and bought off many of the competing factions with positions in the new administration. With foreign forces largely withdrawn, a relative calm has settled in. But in this remote corner of the DRC, where many of the country's wars have traditionally begun, the fighting continues to rage.

Hutu extremists who retreated to the park after their massacre of Rwandan Tutsis back in 1994 have settled along its edges; three years ago some 8,000 Rwandans crossed the border into Virunga looking for pastoral land, and mowed down more than 3,000 acres of prime gorilla habitat in less than three weeks. Earlier this year Tutsi forces loyal to a renegade Congolese general also moved into the park, which houses not only one of the world's most remarkable collections of biodiversity but gold, coltan, zinc and valuable timber. According to local human-rights workers and renowned paleontologist Richard Leakey, among others, a corrupt mafia of charcoal merchants has recently begun harvesting Virunga's forests to fuel a $30 million-a-year industry. "These are their oil wells," Leakey says of Virunga's trees. If unchecked, the loggers' activities could decimate the gorilla habitat in a few years.

The mountain gorillas, part of a worldwide population that numbers around 700, have become more-direct targets as well. Seven have been killed, some would say murdered, since January. They have not been killed for their meat or their pelts or their internal organs. In fact, no one is quite sure why they've been killed. In January two of them died amid fighting between the renegade general, Laurent Nkunda, and government forces. But others, like the family found last week, have been shot at close range and in some cases mutilated.

One of the rangers, Paulin Ngobobo, 43, has been intimately involved in trying to stop the charcoal trade from spreading across Virunga. A devout Christian, with a wry sense of humor, Ngobobo is fiercely protective of the gorillas in his sector of the park. Six months ago he was lecturing villagers about the threat the charcoal industry posed to Virunga when men in military uniforms showed up, stripped him of his shirt and flogged him in front of the audience. Last month he posted a blog item in which he accused the charcoal merchants of being complicit in the destruction of the gorillas' habitat. Two days later unknown gunmen killed a female gorilla under his care.

Ngobobo says he has received death threats and warnings to stop criticizing the charcoal industry. Then came last week's killings, which many in his unit have interpreted as political assassinations—a message from the powerful interests that operate in the area. "There are people who are feeding off this conflict," Ngobobo warns darkly. Last week authorities arrested Ngobobo and accused him of negligence because the recent killings all happened on his watch; his supporters claim that that was part of the assassins' plan all along. Ngobobo denies any wrongdoing.

Rangers like Ngobobo are certainly not the ones profiting in Virunga. Some 600 of them patrol the vast park, the oldest in Africa. Yet most have not received their government salaries in years. Instead many are now paid by a European Union-funded conservation group called Wildlife Direct, cofounded in January by Leakey. The group solicits funds from donors with the guarantee that 100 percent of the money goes straight to the rangers.

Those officers are devoted to their imposing charges. They have their favorites, whom they follow closely and write about on a blog that Wildlife Direct has set up. Leakey's partner, Emmanuel de Merode, says that as recently as 2001 "there wasn't a single vehicle in the whole sector; none of the rangers had uniforms or rifles." Since 1994, about 120 rangers have been killed in the line of duty. Even now they are hopelessly outgunned: Nkunda alone has almost 8,000 highly trained men under his command. Last week the United Nations, which has several thousand peacekeepers stationed in the area, declared Nkunda's forces "the single most serious threat" to Congolese stability. "It's almost impossible to be sanguine about the gorillas' future," says Leakey. "They are hugely vulnerable in part because they're living in areas that are hugely unsettled ... The security of this species is not guaranteed."

The morning after last week's massacre, when the rains had stopped, rangers returned to the forests to search for survivors. That's when they discovered the hulking mass of Senkekwe, a 600-pound silverback shot execution style in a copse of lush vegetation. One massive arm was outstretched, the other held close to his heart, perhaps a sign that he died while thumping his chest. With Senkekwe gone, the unity of the family was immediately cast in doubt.

As the sun cleared the valley walls and rose into the sky, nearly a hundred villagers from nearby settlements gathered on the slopes below the forest. They carried the powerful bodies out and laid them reverently on the ground. They carefully wrapped the great apes' faces with leaves to keep flies away. Using trees and stalks of cut bamboo, they lashed the dead gorillas to makeshift stretchers. And then, with a mighty surge and a great clattering of voices, they hoisted the gorillas onto their shoulders and marched down the hills, toward the setting sun.

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