for National Geographic News
In a steady trickle teenage boys push their way down a dusty road to the bustling city of Goma, their bicycles buckling under the weight of 100-pound (45-kilogram) sacks of charcoal, or makala as it's known here.
The boys are part of an illegal trade that may pose the biggest threat to one of the most pristine places on the planet, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park.
The park's dense forest is rapidly being depleted of its trees to satisfy the almost insatiable demand here for charcoal, which is used for cooking and heating by the millions of people living in this troubled region.
The lucrative charcoal trade is not only wreaking havoc on the park but also on its most famous inhabitants, the rare mountain gorillas.
Conservationists believe last month's execution of four mountain gorillas inside the park was carried out by people associated with the charcoal trade who want the park unprotected.
"The gorillas have become a hindrance for the charcoal trade," said Emmanuel de Merode, director of WildlifeDirect, a conservation group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya that supports the park rangers working in Virunga.
"There's a very strong incentive for these people to kill the gorillas."
(Editor's note, August 17: Since this story was filed on August 16, rangers announced on their blog that one more gorilla has been found dead as a result of the July attack; her infant is still missing and presumed dead, bringing the total to six.)
Situated on the country's eastern border, with Rwanda and Uganda to the east, Virunga is Africa's oldest national park and boasts the highest biodiversity on the continent (see Africa map).
More than half of the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas are found in Virunga.
But the park has been torn apart over the years by a procession of armed groups—from ragtag rebel militias to foreign armies—fighting over its natural riches.
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