Wildlife Park Official Arrested in Gorilla Killings
Nick Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
|March 25, 2008|
Congolese authorities have arrested a senior park official in connection to the recent execution-style killings of several mountain gorillas, a move that conservationists have praised as a crucial step toward saving the rare primates.
Ten mountain gorillas were slaughtered in separate incidents in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park in 2007.
Honore Mashagiro, the former chief of the park, was arrested earlier this month at his home in Goma in eastern Congo.
He appeared in court last week, charged with the deaths of gorillas and illegal charcoal burning, according to the UN-supported radio station Okapi via the Reuters news service.
Last Gorilla Habitat
The 2-million-acre (800,000-hectare) Virunga, a UN World Heritage Site, is home to about half the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas.
Since the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, the park's dense forests have become a battleground and refuge for myriad rebel groups. The park is also under threat by traders who destroy its forests to make cooking charcoal, conservationists say.
Officials with the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN), who had employed Mashagiro, suspect that he was involved in the eastern Congo charcoal trade, which is worth more than 20 million U.S. dollars a year and is threatening the park's resources.
Conservationists say that the gorilla killings in Virunga last year were meant to be a message to rangers who have sought to crack down on the trade.
"What happened in a nutshell was that the rangers started to quite effectively protect the gorillas and the forest as gorilla habitat and that meant less charcoal was coming out," said Emmanuel de Merode, director of the Nairobi-based conservation group WildlifeDirect.
"So to undermine their efforts they started killing gorillas. If they kill all the gorillas, there's no reason to protect the forest."
Mashagiro is accused of involvement in an attack last July that killed five members of the Rugendo gorilla family.
The animals' corpses were left where they could be easily found, suggesting that poachers looking to sell body parts were not involved.
After the killings, Mashagiro was transferred to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park farther south for unknown reasons.
Dan Bucknell, regional program manager at the London-based Gorilla Organization, said he had met with Mashagiro just weeks ago to talk about conservation in Kahuzi-Biega and was surprised by the allegations against him.
"Many people, myself included, have expressed surprise that Mashagiro has been arrested on suspicion of this, because he has, over the years, been a strong ally and worked hard for the conservation of the Virungas," Bucknell said.
"So it does come as a shock if he is involved in this way."
The gorilla deaths—along with widely printed photographs of their bodies being carried out of the forest—garnered worldwide sympathy for a region where human suffering has often been ignored.
(See a photo of rangers carrying a dead silverback in Virunga National Park.)
Human-rights groups, for instance, estimate that some 40,000 people are killed each month as part of the ongoing conflict in eastern Congo.
Mashagiro's arrest comes as WildlifeDirect and its partners have launched a new effort to fight the charcoal traders.
Backed by WildlifeDirect and other international partners, ICCN employees have erected a roadblock along a road leading to Goma."
A team of ICCN rangers and military police have seized more than a hundred tonnes of charcoal in the last ten weeks—a fraction of the total amount harvested in Virunga but a symbolic victory, said Chris Ransom, projects coordinator for the Zoological Society of London's Bushmeat and Forests Conservation Programme.
The UN Development Programme has also been distributing seized charcoal for free in Goma, where hundreds of thousands of people displaced from fighting in eastern Congo have sought refuge.
Ransom called Mashagiro's arrest an important signal that Congolese authorities—working in what many consider to be one of the world's most corrupt nations—were willing to get tough.
His alleged involvement in the trade was emblematic of the massive corruption in eastern Congo, conservationists say.
"In the past people have felt that they can get away with anything and not be arrested for it, and now it's been shown that the ex-provincial director has been arrested and will be taken to court and tried," Ransom said.
"This is a massive step for the ICCN for someone inside to be taken to court, particularly someone at such a high level."
Still Under Threat
The World Conservation Union lists mountain gorillas as critically endangered, and more than a hundred rangers have been slain in recent years trying to protect wildlife in Virunga.
(Related news: "Rare Gorillas Helpless as Congo Rangers Flee Rebels" [September 5, 2007].)
The situation in the region known as the "gorilla sector" is still tense. Earlier this month, one of the many rebel groups operating in the region warned rangers with the ICCN not to enter.
"They are very aggressive against the rangers of ICCN and have threatened to execute any of us who return to the gorilla sector," one ranger told the BBC news organization.
Some conservationists fear that all the attention brought to the gorillas has only made them easier targets for rebels and traders who run a host of illegal businesses in Virunga.
"Of course there are also other issues: There are land disputes [and] there is illegal farming in the park, sometimes backed by people with a certain influence," said Johannes Refisch of the UN Environment Programme's Great Apes Survival Project.
"It's very clear [the gorilla killings were] a political message. It has nothing to do with the gorillas per se. They use them as a message—Look, don't interfere with our business, otherwise you'll get in trouble."
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