Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images

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Rangers patrol for illegal charcoal kilns in the Kibati region of Virunga National Park in April 2008.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images

Marijuana Trade Threatens African Gorilla Refuge

Pot-growing rebels in Virunga National Park clashing with rangers.

The battle over the war-ravaged Virunga National Park, home to some of the world's last wild mountain gorillas, is heating up.

In early April a ranger in the park, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was shot to death by militias—the eighth ranger to have been killed in the past three months.

And rebels who have been fueling the illegal charcoal business, which destroys critical gorilla habitat, now appear to have turned to an additional criminal activity: growing marijuana. (Read more about the Virunga gorillas.)

"The same people are involved," said Innocent Mburanumwe, the warden in charge of the southern sector of Virunga, where the mountain gorillas live.

A crackdown on the charcoal and marijuana businesses in 2009 was very successful. But the Rwandan militia living in the park, known as FDLR, seems to have reorganized and stepped up its activities, Mburanumwe said.

"The most recent attack is by far the most worrying, as it appears the rebels may be changing their tactics, and are currently getting the better of the wildlife authority," Rob Muir, of the Frankfurt Zoological Society's office in Goma, DRC, said via email.

Virunga Forests Going to Pot

The latest trouble has been occurring in the volcanic Nyamulagira region of the park, away from the gorilla sector, which has so far remained calm. (See a park map.)

With the Congolese government absent in much of eastern Congo, the rangers have been left to fight the ragtag militias, poachers, and bandits who have turned Virunga—Africa's oldest national park—into a battleground for decades.

Charcoal is illegally produced in the park by cutting down wood, then slowly burning it for six days inside a kiln made of wood and covered with dirt, according to the park's website. People then sell the charcoal in Goma, or trade it for guns and bullets. In 2007, people involved with the charcoal trade killed seven gorillas. (See a National Geographic interactive time line of the turmoil in Virunga.)

The FDLR rebels, remnants of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, are based in the forest and provide "security" for traders, who transport the illegal charcoal from forest kilns to the main road to be sold.

Villagers provide the FDLR with money, food, cell phone airtime, and medicine in exchange for being allowed into the forest to make the charcoal, the rangers say.

When the charcoal has been removed, the area may be cleared and seeded with marijuana, usually by the FDLR. Rebels will come back to harvest, dry, and sell or exchange the pot, often for uniforms, bullets, and guns, according to the rangers.

"The charcoal trade is destroying the forest, and the marijuana comes in after it," said LuAnne Cadd, a spokesperson for the park service.

In March two people were caught with marijuana plants that had been grown in the forest.

Rangers Need to Rethink Security

Patrols are aimed at eradicating the charcoal business, not going after the marijuana traders. But in the most recent incident, rangers patrolling the Kibumba area in Nyamulagira found not only a charcoal kiln but also a lot of marijuana plants.

A team of 15 rangers began a patrol in Kibumba, specifically looking for charcoal kilns, when they came under fire by an unknown number of men believed to have been FDLR rebels. Ranger Magayane Bazirushaka was killed in the attack.

"It seems likely that the rebels established a charcoal fire to draw the rangers into an area where they could be easily ambushed, and then sat and waited," the Frankfurt Zoological Society's Muir said.

"If this is indeed the case, the rangers will need to rethink their current law enforcement strategy, increase their intelligence and surveillance networks, and diversify their operations on the ground," he said. 

"The bottom line is that the park is now under greater pressure than it has been for many years, and this is directly linked to the efforts to uphold and enforce the law."

Gorilla Population Up Despite Strife

Despite the turmoil, the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga region—which straddles the borders of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda—has increased by 26 percent in the last seven years and now totals 480.

Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga's director, said rangers are now planning to launch new operations to stop illegal marijuana trade.

"Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of this terrible war," de Merode said, "is the unwavering determination of our rangers on the ground not to give up on the efforts to bring stability and the rule of law back to Virunga."