Virunga Gorillas Still Threatened
Mountain gorilla region under threat
Mon 23 Aug 2004
ARMED with an old AK-47 assault rifle, 26-year-old Martin Kazerezi says he's ill-equipped to protect Africa's oldest national park.
"There are so many enemies in the forest," the ranger says, referring not to dangerous animals, but to the conflict raging within the boundaries of Virunga National Park, which straddles the borders of eastern Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
Home to looming volcanoes, pristine rainforests and the majestic mountain gorilla, Virunga was popularised by the film Gorillas in the Mist about the American researcher Dian Fossey, who was hacked to death there in 1985.
The mountain gorillas have long shared their mountain habitat with human killers - in 1999, eight tourists, including Steven Roberts, 27, from Edinburgh, were killed while on a gorilla-watching trip in nearby Uganda.
But the situation has got considerably worse in recent months.
The five-year regional war in the Democratic Republic of Congo supposedly ended last year, but militias at the heart of the fighting still use the Virunga park - a World Heritage Site - as a base for bloody incursions into all three countries, which also keep armies in the forest.
"It's a soup of militias and troops all doing the same thing: launching raids and attacking villagers," said Robert Muir, project director for the Frankfurt Zoological Society's conservation programme, based in nearby Goma.
"Conservation in the park is not fun at the moment. People are being shot and killed. It's more dangerous guarding the park now than during the war."
Mr Muir said 93 Congolese guards have been killed in eight years, an average of almost one a month.
Tensions in the area flared again after Congo accused Rwanda - which has twice invaded its giant neighbour in the past eight years - of backing renegade troops who briefly seized an eastern Congolese town in early June.
Separately, thousands of Rwandans poured across the border in May and June, slashing and burning six square miles of forest, according to United Nations experts, conservationists and local residents.
Centuries-old forest has been reduced to splintered logs, charred black pits and mounds of tilled land abandoned by the squatters when they left.
In the remaining forest, elephants, chimpanzees and buffalo roam, but the flattened bald scar stretching over hillsides offers only the buzz of insects and a few birds dipping between the clumps of trees left standing amid the destruction.
Virunga comprises only 164 square miles of habitat, and 355 of the world's 700 mountain gorillas live in Congo, so six square miles is a big loss.
Allegedly paid by Rwandan land speculators, the settlers were seen being trucked from Rwanda and ordered by Rwandan army commanders to cut down the forest in Congo's Mikeno sector.
"Since April, convoys of people from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have destroyed large tracts of the park, home to the mountain gorilla and other endangered species, to create agricultural and pastoral land," the World Wildlife Fund said when the deforestation was identified.
"This is particularly significant since it is encroaching on an area where gorillas live. There are three family groups in that area comprising about 50 animals," said Peter Stephenson, the WWF's African Great Apes programme co-ordinator.
Rwanda, a tiny country and one of Africa's most densely populated, insists it played no official role in levelling the forest, though observers say the destruction was intended to push marauding militias away from the border.
"Clear cutting of brush along one's border is a common practice to repulse incursions, but the activities instigated by the Rwandan Defence Forces advanced considerably beyond any acceptable range," said a report by UN experts. The land was cultivated and cattle were introduced. Each person was paid the equivalent of $1 a day for the work, according to villagers and conservationists.
The UN experts investigating Congo's accusations of cross-border meddling said they had satellite images showing that Rwanda had put heavy-weapon encasements in the Congolese section of the park.
"What could we do? They have big guns and they were many," Mr Kazerezi said, shaking his head.
The forest clearance in Virunga was halted in late June after Western diplomats and conservation groups pressured the Rwandan government to intervene.
The Rwandan army says it has troops stationed in the forest, but only on its side of the border to protect against attacks by extremist Hutu Interahamwe militias who killed 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates before fleeing into Congo's wilds in 1994.
"It's possible people crossed and cut trees down - we have the same problem everywhere here in Rwanda - but you can�t say it was deliberate or that we encouraged it," said Colonel Patrick Karegeya, a Rwandan army spokesman.
"Things have been politicised, so everything that happens there is Rwanda's fault," he said.
Rwanda backed the main rebel army during the war in Congo and the rebels - now part of an interim government - remain loosely in control of the border province, including Virunga.
In eastern Rwanda, too, park land has fallen victim to widespread clearing. In June it was reported that a third of the area at Rwanda's largest national park, Akagera, was burned in a single week by poachers. The park is home to elephants, giraffes, zebra and species of antelope and monkey. The poachers had lit the fires to scare the animals, which were then caught in snares as they fled the flames.
In Virunga, the settlers and cattle might have been driven out, but the long-term damage has been done.
"It hit me hard when I saw this," said Kazerezi, surveying a vast expanse of freshly hacked tree stumps and dusty earth at the foot of the smoking volcanoes towering above.
The latest incursion enraged poor Congolese villagers living on the park fringes who rely on the forest for a water supply. They responded by building a metre-high wall over rugged terrain to keep out livestock and farmers, and to reclaim the park boundaries.
Green shoots have begun to sprout in the wasteland, but Mr Muir said it would take 15 years for the forest to regenerate and even then it would be a sad reflection of its former self. "It will be a poor forest," he said.
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