Protecting Gorillas at All Costs: Meet the Fearless Park Rangers of the Congo

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In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government is trying to develop tourism. But the lives of rangers who patrol areas popular for rare gorillas are on the line.

By Thomas Nicolon

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Park Ranger Jean Pierre stands guard in a remote area of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Rangers are paid a meager salary, though typical of regional wages, for their dangerous work. (Photo: Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay)

I came out of my room and a park ranger was standing just outside the door with an AK-47 in his hands.

“You don’t have to worry, Monsieur, the base is totally secured,” he said.

I actually wasn’t worried at all: I just wanted to have a nice cold beer before going to bed.

Park Ranger Janvier (who didn’t give his last name) and I started taking a walk around the base, toward the only spot where there was decent phone reception. I asked him what he was defending me — and the base — against. Was it Mai-Mai rebels? Poachers? Bandits?

“There are almost no more rebels in the area, sir,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’re safe here. We just need to be ready: the enemy can strike any time.”

It’s hard to get a grasp on what exactly threatens the park, the rangers, and the villagers, since the park’s communication policy is to talk as little as possible and avoid sensitive topics such as insecurity.

No need to scare tourists — and money — away.

But the truth is that security is still an issue in South Kivu, where Kahuzi-Biega National Park is located. The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been a hotbed of violence over the past 20 years, and the park’s 2,316 square miles of thick jungle are complicated to secure.

The area is still recovering from two wars, thousands of refugees, countless rebel groups, and decades of violence.

During a week in Kahuzi-Biega to photograph the rare Grauer’s Gorilla, I was escorted by half a dozen armed guards every single day. The park is home to the last stronghold of Grauer’s Gorillas in the world, a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla, which was recently listed as critically endangered.

Park rangers repeatedly told me when they took me out on patrols to look for gorillas that they were “only taking precautions” and that it was all “safe.” Such a statement is hard to believe when five to eight rangers at a time escorted me daily. I even remember a day when 12 rangers took me on patrol to the park’s waterfalls, where few tourists ever go. Each of the 12 park rangers was armed with an AK-47.

Yet the day after I left the park, one of the many daily patrols got caught in an ambush. Park ranger Munganga Nzonga Jacques was shot dead. Jacques was one of Kahuzi-Biega’s 250 rangers who crisscross the park every day in order to protect the gorillas, 24 hours a day, for a salary of just $60 — $145 a month.

The attack that took Jacques’ life was the third in six months — two of which were fatal. Upon returning to the park a few weeks later, no one would talk to me about the incident.

Private Opinions

Kahuzi-Biega’s rangers are a unique group. On a daily basis, many are so poor that they don’t have resources to carry water with them on their hours-long patrols over difficult terrain. They say little — about their work, their lives, or their opinion of the Grauer Gorillas.

Yet when off duty, they sometimes speak their mind.

I asked one ranger how many times he has seen the gorillas.

“I’ve never seen them,” he replied flatly.

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A Grauer’s Gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in late 2016. There are fewer than 4,000 of the gorilla subspecies left. (Photo: Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay)

A real shame, I told him, it’s a wonderful experience. His response was that of someone focused on personal survival. He wouldn’t allow me to publish his name, but he was eager to share his point view.

“What is it going to change for me?” he answered. “After having seen them I’ll return home as hungry as I was in the morning.”

The ranger’s thoughts tidily sum up wildlife conservation in the DRC: many people simply have more pressing priorities.

Despite increasing efforts by the government to protect the region’s wildlife, much of the general public remains under the strain of poverty. The country is one of the poorest in the world, and the main priority for most is to earn enough to get through the day and put food on the table. Being a park ranger is just another job that doesn’t pay enough.

It’s also a job one can die doing — a high price to pay.

Rare Treasure

The gorilla species inside the park that is so well protected is incredibly rare. Last October, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed Grauer’s Gorilla status to “critically endangered.” Experts say the population has decreased by about 77 percent in the past 20 years. According to the IUCN, as of 2015 there were only about 3,800 Grauer’s Gorillas left. Though it is illegal to kill or capture the great apes, hunting remains one of the greatest threats to them.

Endemic to the mountainous forests of eastern DRC, Grauer’s Gorilla could become extinct within five years. Kahuzi-Biega is the only remaining place where there are habituated groups of Grauer’s Gorillas.

The proximity is a godsend for scientists.

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Primatologist Amy Porter studies Grauer’s Gorilla’s social interactions, as well as the species’s feeding ecology and ranging behavior. (Photo: Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay)

Primatologist Amy Porter is the only biologist working with Grauer’s Gorillas in the field and lives at the park. Every day, she spends between to three to four hours with the gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega, mainly with the Chimanuka family, the most habituated group. She studies their social interactions, feeding ecology, and ranging behavior.

“When studying animal behavior, it’s incredible to be able to get this close,” Porter said. “The gorillas are so habituated that our presence probably doesn’t alter their behavior. They just live their lives.”

Even scientists aren’t safe here, though. Porter said that once she and some rangers were ambushed while out in the field, and they were forced to hide in the forest for several hours as more than 20 gunshots (by her count) were fired toward them.

Despite the risks, tourists do come to enjoy the experience.

Most are expats living in DRC or neighboring countries such as Uganda and Rwanda. Uwe Näher is German and has been living in DRC’s capital city of Kinshasa for seven years.

“It’s my first time with the gorillas,” he said. “Political unrest will probably hit the country soon, so I figured it was now or never. The country has a bad reputation, security-wise, but that’s because people don’t suspect the wonders one can see here.”

The wonders have a price: $400 to spend 40 minutes with the gorillas. It costs $1,000 right across the border, in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park — where another critically endangered gorilla subspecies lives: the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei).

The huge price tag to visit Kahuzi-Biega goes to conservation, but tourism would have to develop significantly for it to be enough to save Grauer’s Gorilla. That’s actually the aim of the government: more tourism would lead to more money. More money would mean fewer young men joining rebel groups — which some do simply for the money.

It would also allow for more efficient measures to protect the gorillas.

Lucien Gédéon, the park’s manager, never misses a chance to call for help.

“We need more partners and more publicity, so that we can attract tourists and do more for our gorillas,” Gédéon said. “At the moment we simply don’t have enough. We create partnerships with international organizations, but it’s not enough yet.”

Uphill Battle

One of the main difficulties for the work of the park’s crew and the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) is that the DRC’s South Kivu province is a war-torn area, with recurrent security issues. Additionally, the whole country remains mired in a deep political crisis that could possibly lead to serious unrest.

It is simply not a stable region.

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A Grauer’s Gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in late 2016. There are fewer than 4,000 of the gorilla subspecies left. (Photo: Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay)

The ICCN manages every protected area (including national parks) in the DRC, with the support of international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund or Wildlife Conservation Society — the Congolese governmental structure doesn’t have the means to protect areas all around the country by itself.

It was actually the two Congolese wars, from 1996 to 2003, that hurt Grauer’s Gorillas the most. Rwandan refugees needed space to settle, and huge chunks of forest were wiped out, as well as the animals that lived in it. The gorillas would likely not survive another war, as they proved deadly for them in the past.

Yet these magnificent animals could actually be the key to peace and economic development.

With more financing, the park could increase conservation measures and have a chance to save Grauer’s Gorillas from extinction. Their protection could also be a step in bettering the region’s economic development.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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