A gorilla war in Congo

Sanders is a Times staff writer.

Past some of the greenest hills, poorest villages and roughest roads in Africa, a machete-wielding ranger hacks his way deep into the jungle until a canopy of giant ferns and bamboo eclipses the sun.

Antelopes, elephants and hippos once thrived here in Africa’s oldest national park. Decades of poaching have left little more than a few families of mountain gorillas. And civil war rages just miles away, the latest twist in a conflict that has ensnared eastern Congo for 12 years.

Unlike a quarter of a million of their human neighbors who have had to flee the latest fighting, the gorillas appear untouched so far.

But they haven’t escaped altogether: Aware that gorillas at times draw more global attention than the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rebels and the government are engaged in a kind of gorilla war over who should control the park


It’s a struggle that bears many hallmarks of this region’s conflict, including ethnic rivalry, resource exploitation and a scramble to curry international favor.

When rebels seized control of the Virunga National Park’s gorilla sanctuary in 2007, rangers who cared for the animals got caught in the middle. Some fled with government troops. Others stayed behind and continued doing their jobs.

After a two-hour hike, the ranger, one of those who stayed, stops suddenly and makes a throat-clearing grunt -- something like a noise you’d make to catch the attention of a daydreaming store clerk.


To the giant silverback gorilla seated 30 feet away, it translates roughly the same, a kind of “excuse me” to alert the animal that humans are approaching. The bored-looking gorilla glances up and grunts back, giving rangers the green light to come closer.

A female, who rangers say is pregnant and called Lulengo, reclines on a patch of grass, picking nits off her shoulder. The dominant silverback, with an enormous head and hands, noisily crunches bamboo trunks in his yellow teeth as easily as if they were celery stalks. Another female scurries away with a year-old baby clutching the black hairs of her back.

The family is one of seven living here. Mountain gorillas once numbered in the thousands. Only about 700 remain worldwide, including 200 in Virunga.

The rest were poached for food or gruesome trophies, such as gorilla-hand ashtrays. A few families have become popular wildlife attractions. In neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, tourists pay $500 an hour to observe one of man’s closest cousins. Concerned that gorillas might disappear completely from the wild, the United Nations has declared 2009 as the year of the gorilla and developed plans to protect them.


Ten gorillas were killed in 2007 before the Congolese Wildlife Authority pulled out of the gorilla sanctuary, and rebels under Laurent Nkunda took over.

Some argue that Congo’s gorillas have been safer under rebel control -- not because rebels are enlightened animal-lovers, but because unpaid and hungry government soldiers and militiamen hunted animals for meat and destroyed habitat by engaging in illegal charcoal production for cash.

Virunga’s previous park director was fired and arrested last year after being implicated in a ring that was believed responsible for the killings of five gorillas before the rebels seized the park. The massacre apparently was intended as a warning to government officials to halt their campaign against poaching and deforestation.

“The gorillas are safer now than they were before,” said Canisius Kanamahalagi, one of about 30 rangers who stayed behind. “It was during the government control that so many were killed.”


Benjamin Nsana, 40, said six different governments and rebel groups have controlled the park during the 15 years he has worked there. “We’re not political,” he said. “We work with whoever controls the park.”

Rangers who stayed behind insist the gorillas are prospering under their care, with several recent births and the discovery, they say, of a new family.

Newly installed park director Emmanuel de Merode, a longtime conservationist and Belgian national, said such reports must be verified, but he agreed that the gorillas had fared better than people and other animals.

While thousands of residents have been forced into displacement camps and the hippo population has plummeted from 30,000 to 300, the number of mountain gorillas here has increased by 19% since 1996 despite the conflict and the poaching, thanks largely to conservation efforts.


“It’s been an incredible success story,” said De Merode, who was hired by the government in August to restore the park authority’s credibility. “Wildlife has suffered a lot, [but] there are a few exceptions, and it looks like mountain gorillas are among the exceptions.”

Rebels and government officials tentatively agreed for the first time last month to work together in the gorilla sector. The agreement came a month after rebels seized the park’s headquarters in nearby Rumangabo.

As he recently resettled into his office at park headquarters under the new arrangement, De Merode said he hoped to soon dispatch 41 park rangers to join the 30 who already work in the gorilla sector. He also planned to reestablish five 24-hour patrol posts and resume formal surveying of the families.

But it remains unclear whether the government and rebels will really be able to set aside their differences.


Park officials questioned the qualifications and political motives of rangers who stayed behind.

“These rangers are not fully trained in gorilla-monitoring,” De Merode said. “They’ve been a little cavalier.”

Government officials pressured all but one international conservationist group to suspend their work with the gorillas after the rebel takeover and discouraged tourism, saying the proceeds would fund the insurgency.

“They said I was a rebel,” Kanamahalagi said. “They spoiled my name.”


Park officials also have accused the rebels of attacking some rangers, often because of their ethnicity. Tutsi rangers, who are part of the same ethnic group as rebel leader Nkunda, were allowed to remain in the park, some say, though others were chased away.

“The risk was I would be killed,” said Innocent Mburanumwe, head of gorilla monitoring, who fled after the rebel takeover. He said rangers who tried to return were robbed and attacked.

Park officials have also accused rebels of killing and eating two gorillas last year.

Rebels contend that their soldiers are too disciplined to ever hurt gorillas. They accuse park officials of corruption and mismanagement, saying they exaggerate the threat to gorillas in a bid for international support.


“They need to lie for their fundraising,” said Babou Amani, deputy spokesman for Nkunda’s movement, National Congress for the Defense of the People.

He said control of the gorilla sector fell into the rebels’ lap during an offensive to seize strategic land near the Ugandan border. But he said they took the responsibility seriously.

“For us, gorillas are worth more than diamonds,” Amani said.

To demonstrate their commitment, rebels have been organizing visits, a kind of guerrillas’ gorilla tour for journalists and others. A recent trip suggested that rangers are well-intentioned, if not always well-trained.


They observed many of the rules for human interaction, such as limiting visits to an hour. A sick ranger stayed behind to avoid spreading contagion.

On the other hand, rangers came within touching distance of a female gorilla rather than maintaining the recommended 21-foot distance. Formal records appeared lax. One ranger reported that two babies were born in the last 14 months, but others estimated six or 10.

None knew the gorillas’ individual names, which is important for monitoring, or exact ages or family histories.

Park officials interviewed after the rebel tour even questioned whether the female was pregnant or merely well-fed. In any event, the rangers got her name wrong -- the gorilla named Lulengo is a male, De Merode said.


Nsana, one of the rangers supervising the tour, said he hoped the government and rebels would set aside their differences so all rangers could return to work.

“If everyone joined hands, that would be good for the government and it would help us get more international aid,” Nsana said. “Most of all, it would be better for the gorillas.”