Really Want to Help Gorillas? Look to Virunga
Watching the U.S. fervor over the death of Harambe the gorilla from East Africa, the only thing that came to mind is that the death of one is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic. The loss of a gorilla is terrible and sad, but here in Central and East Africa, the battle to sustain these creatures from poachers and encroaching political upheaval is too often ignored by the west.
This disparity is highlighted by a new National Geographic special that looks inside Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park is home to some of the world’s most impressive landscapes. Volcanos, replete with lava lakes, tower over the impenetrable forests that hundreds of mountain gorillas call home.
Here, you cannot just build a fence to keep the humans out. Rather, wars and unrest have made their way into the park, causing massive upheaval in the wildlife populations as well as danger to the rangers who have dedicated their lives to protecting them. According to the National Geographic piece, since 1996 around 152 rangers have lost their lives defending the park’s inhabitants.
Danger takes the form of militant groups, illegal charcoal operations, poachers, oil extraction and mining. Keeping a handle on these various elements devastates the already miniscule budget rangers must work within. Journalist Robert Draper explains:
“The park’s VIPs—the 250 to 300 mountain gorillas that are habituated to humans—are kept under daily watch by a security team of 80 humans, as would befit a president or a pope. Virunga is national property, but the government in Kinshasa contributes only five percent of the park’s eight-million-dollar annual operating budget.”
According to experts, the most commonly known poaching method perpetrated against gorillas is the stealing of babies to later sell them into captivity. To do this they often kill their parents.
However one of the most tragic events against the gorillas took place in 2007, when illegal charcoal smugglers killed seven gorillas within the park. Many have speculated the killings were a retaliatory attempt to discredit the work of a local conservationist – who was going up against the illegal charcoal trade. News of the massacre was covered broadly – and photos showing tearful Congolese carrying the bodies of these gorillas were splashed around the world.
Yet very little has been done to diminish this threat. The illicit charcoal trade, and the danger faced by gorillas is still ongoing within the region.
There has been some good news. The numbers of mountain gorillas have increased in the past few years thanks to some incredible conservation efforts. And while this is impressive, it has come at the cost of over 150 ranger’s lives.
It is, of course, easier to rail against a mother, a fence or a zookeeper than it is to take on the complexities of international conflict and illicit trade. One is easy, quick, visceral escapism, giving us a sense of righteous indignation. The other gives us a feeling of utter helplessness.
However, if we are actually interested in the lives of gorillas and those who die protecting them, it might be time we start paying closer attention.
There are programs that can help cut down on poaching, illicit trade and militancy within the Virunga Park region. Helping villagers access basics like electricity keeps charcoal needs down. Embracing biomass production, farming improvements and local entrepreneurship keeps people from joining these militias and helps to create sustainable livelihoods. Encouraging our own western governments to invest in these projects can actually make a difference.
If we actually want to help save gorilla lives it’s important to throw our international support behind such programs. It takes considerably more effort than writing a Facebook post about the failings of one mother. But if we’re all going to act as though we care about keeping gorillas alive, it’s a hell of a lot more valuable.
Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia