The Story Behind the Killings of Congo's Rare Mountain Gorillas

It may have been payback for a crackdown on the "charcoal mafia."

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Park rangers carried four dead gorillas out of the jungle on makeshift stretchers.

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They came one night last July, stalking the majestic apes like assassins out on a contract hit. In the morning, when Jean-Marie Serundori came upon the four lifeless mountain gorillas, he started to cry, shaking his head in disbelief. It was not the first time that gorillas have been killed in their sanctuary, but the scale was horrifying. "Nothing like this has ever happened before," says Serundori, a park ranger for the past 32 years in the eastern Congo's Virunga National Park.

The brutality drew international attention at the time, but little notice of what has happened since. Investigators had strong instincts about who was behind the killings: criminal gangs running the illegal charcoal racket here. Investigators, park rangers and conservationists believe the gunmen's goal was to cause an uproar that would pressure the park management in the distant capital, Kinshasa, to remove the one man most identified with cracking down on the illegal charcoal trade.

In that they succeeded.

When Paulin Ngobobo became park manager for the southern sector of Virunga in May 2006, he decided to push the charcoal trade out of the park. "This was a basic problem of law enforcement," he says. Ngobobo motivated park rangers to arrest illegal charcoal makers, and he worked with the local communities to find alternative fuel and incomes. For his efforts, he received international recognition from conservation groups—as well as threats and beatings from thugs here.

And after the gorilla massacre, his opponents got their man. The Congolese park authorities moved Ngobobo to the park's less important northern sector, away from the vulnerable gorilla population and the international conservation groups who backed his enforcement efforts. He took the transfer—presented to as temporary—with a degree of equanimity. "What I have done was really upset the system," says Ngobobo, who has the demeanor of an academic and speaks impeccable French. "And for that, they have put my head on a tray."

"Mafia." The bald hilltops surrounding Virunga—indeed all up and down the eastern Congo—attest to the high demand for firewood needed for cooking. Most of the easily accessible wood has been taken. Virunga National Park, a 3,000-square-mile expanse of volcanoes, forests, jungles, lakes, and rivers, is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. It is Africa's oldest national park, and home to just under half the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas. It is also one of the few places in the eastern Congo left with wood for making charcoal.

Park rangers have had some success in rounding up and expelling groups of charcoal makers. A sack of charcoal that initially sells for about $12 can be resold for double that in Goma, about 20 miles away, where there is a large population of refugees from the conflicts in eastern Congo.

In a part of the world where people rely on subsistence agriculture and foreign aid, the importance of the charcoal industry can't be ignored. Ngobobo bemoans what he says is the corruption that influences some local officials, military authorities, traditional chiefs, and conservation officials. "The charcoal industry is a whole mafia," he says. Around 550 park rangers patrol the park. They are paid about $5 a month, intermittently, by the government (the conservation group WildlifeDirect pays rangers $30 to $60 a month in an effort to help protect the park and its gorillas). Some 150 rangers have been killed in the past 10 years, mostly by various militia groups. "Unfortunately every time there are hostilities, the rangers pay the heaviest price," says Ngobobo.

The situation is very different in neighboring Rwanda, where villagers don't dare make charcoal illegally out of fear of punishment by the authoritarian government. Rwandan authorities see the value in protecting the gorillas, a major draw for the growing numbers of foreign tourists who pay $500 each to see the rare mammals in their habitat.

In contrast, Virunga's top ranger in charge of tourism, Diddy Mwanaki, hasn't seen a single tourist since August. "The first thing we need to do is stop the fighting," he says. "The next is to look for another source of energy in the area."