Johnson: Onscene at Congo Gorilla Killings

On July 23, rangers at Virunga National Park of the Democratic Republic of the Congo made a gruesome discovery. Four endangered mountain gorillas had been slaughtered, for reasons unknown, leaving two infants orphaned. The killings are signficant because the world­ wide population of mountain gorillas only numbers around 700.

Richard Leakey is the founder of Wildlife Direct, a European Union-funded conservation organization based in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), works to protect the apes in Virunga park. A renowned paleontologist, Leakey’s tough antipoaching measures are credited with putting an end to the elephant slaughter in Kenya in the 1980s. He spoke by phone from Kenya to NEWSWEEK’s Scott Johnson about the recent slaughter of some of the endangered animals, the threat posed by the charcoal industry and what the international community needs to do next. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How does this recent massacre affect gorilla-conservation efforts?
Richard Leakey:
Everybody who has heard about it is shocked. There has been a surreal sense of optimism because until now the gorilla population has been increasing. The Congolese Conservation Institute [known the local acronym ICCN] doesn't have the resources to properly protect those animals. We need to bring more pressure to bear, extra men and resources to do the job correctly. People know who is doing what to undermine those efforts, and when they're doing it. Some of us must now stand up and be counted.

Tell me about the charcoal industry and its role in the threat to the gorillas.
This is the energy crisis of the area. People in Rwanda have no access to fuel like those of us in Europe or the United States. They can't just go and get gas or electricity as easily as we do. Most of them are desperately dependent on wood [for fuel]. They've banned cutting down trees in their country [charcoal is produced when trees are cut down and burned at high temperatures]. If that's the case in Rwanda, then a poorly controlled province next door is an obvious place to source charcoal and also a place for a few people to get extremely rich. These are their oil wells. The reaction of the Rwandans in preventing further deforestation is to be admired, but it hasn't been matched on the Congolese side, unfortunately. This is something that requires international pressure and attention if we're going to take action to save the park. Gorillas are iconic animals there, of course, but there are such a vast number of other species, it's one of the richest areas on earth.

What else can be done to protect the wildlife rangers who risk their lives to protect these gorillas?
We are assisting the ICCN, but we're not responsible in a hierarchical way with the rangers. We're providing assistance to them through support programs, but we have to be clear that we are not an NGO directly responsible for the gorillas. That is a sovereign responsibility. There will be attempts to connect the two. We will be acutely aware of any additional needs brought to our attention, and if we can help people through our Web site, we'll do everything we can to channel funds to them. But we want it coming out of a Congolese initiative rather than through foreigners exclusively.

How endangered are the gorillas now?
It's an ugly reminder of what we all knew, that the security of this species is not guaranteed. They are hugely vulnerable in part because they're living in areas that are hugely unsettled. If there was lawful governance in eastern Congo then we might not be having this discussion.

Could we be facing the extinction of the species?
There are around 680 mountain gorillas left in the wild. For a species, that's almost impossible to be sanguine about their future. The last several weeks have seen a 10 percent reduction of the [Congolese] population. If you have a 10 percent reduction in as many weeks then you may lose the gorilla population, yes. They've been at lower levels before. But the situation prevailing in the DRC right now is quite like Rwanda was 10 years ago. Now, it's much better in Rwanda. The Rwandan government puts enormous stock in putting their gorillas forward. The Congolese government probably feels the same, but there are huge problems. [Congolese President Joseph] Kabila himself hosted a conference a couple of years ago for great-ape survival. Congo put a lot of effort into that. But the reality is that [DRC capital] Kinshasa is a long way from the park where this happened. And [the] DRC has a lot of other problems, as well.

Is this a turning point in their survival?
In the sense that it's such a horrendous incident, the outcome of despair and anger and frustrated concern will probably stimulate a response. Maybe more money, maybe stronger government intercession. I hope the government will take this extremely seriously.

What happens now?
I would like there to be a formal inquiry into what really happened. Let us see a report about the charcoal trade in eastern Congo, and the links to severe and serious corruption involving officials of ICCN. Let us see increased resources to protect the gorillas. And then parallel to that let us see the reaction of the international community and how the DRC government responds to that, and how NGOs respond, as well.

You sent in an elite advance team to protect the gorillas about a month ago, and Congolese officials told them to leave, correct?
Yes. I'm hoping that ICCN directors will see fit to boost the security presence on the ground, to ensure that gorillas aren't shot in the future.

Wouldn't it behoove the smugglers to leave the gorillas alone and just get on with their business?
If the habitat is creating the charcoal, they'll eventually get harassed for cutting down trees. In the past [the smugglers have] made mayhem and people got scared, so this is a direct strategy to drive people away through fear. I'm not sure the charcoal magnates think logically on that issue. I'm not sure there's much logical thinking going on right now in that part of the country.