A renegade Congolese army general and his rebel followers have taken over parts of the enormous central African country that is home to the world's rare mountain gorilla.
Even though our country's economy appears to be in a downward spiral and wars are being fought in the name of terror containment in two fronts and are spilling over into previously uninvolved countries, this lesser known problem has me worried too. It's escalated in recent days and the fate of the mountain gorilla is at stake.
The rebels have used the Virunga National Park, set aside to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat, as a base in the past. But this time, they've actually taken over the park headquarters and booted out all of the rangers, who like other Congolese citizens, have fled with everything they own on their backs to try to stay alive another day.
Left behind are some 200 mountain gorillas now left with no protection. Why is this significant? Without anyone around to stop them, the rebels can shoot gorillas and eat them as bushmeat. This has happened in the past and could easily start happening again. What also happens is that mothers with babies are shot and the babies are stolen to sell on the black market. That money buys more weapons, making it harder to stop them. They also chop down trees to make charcoal, which is used for heat for shelter and food.
It's a really ugly situation brewing in the Congo. The park is a World Heritage Site and is home to the highest level of biodiversity in Africa.
According to an old AP story, hippos in the Congo are also on the verge of being wiped out with more than 400 killed last year, mostly for food. It's estimated that only 900 hippos are left, a massive decrease from the 22,000 reported there in 1998.
The UN has peace keepers around the Congo, and it is in fact their largest single mission, yet it, as always, appears to do little good. Since the on-again-off again civil war erupted in the Congo in 1998, more than 5 million people have been killed. Not many people are employed as park rangers, so the figure that 110 of them have died in their line of work in the last decade is sobering.
Poachers and deforestation have wreaked havoc in the Virunga National Park for more than a decade. Occasionally it spills across the border to Rwanda, making the Rwandan side of the Virunga park a dangerous place too. The situation in Rwanda has improved tremendously since the end of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Even so, that conflict saw millions of refugees spill across the border to Congo, sometimes right through the park, burning and looting along the way. Some say it marked the beginning of an era of unrest, lawlessness and clashes between militias and myriad rebel groups in the Congo.
It all reminds me that as long as Africa continues to be impoverished, there's little hope. And, very little research getting done on primates there. It's my hope however, that people can shift away from mining nonrenewable resources like coal, oil and minerals in order to provide for their families and instead find alternative means of income that are based on environmentally sustainable endeavors. Rwanda, bolstered by a president in favor of conservation, has managed to build mountain gorilla tourism so well that it is the country's third largest source of foreign revenue. Gorillas are a source of pride for the people, contributing to a positive image of the country.
Perhaps in time, this could happen in the Congo too.
You can get daily updates on the Congo situation by visiting the Virunga National Park's staff blog:
Here's a park ranger talking about the Virunga National Park and his work there. It's really interesting.