By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 22, 2007
VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Congo -- They heard the gunshots around 3 p.m., at least two pops that echoed across the green mountains of this vast park tangled up in vines, fallen trees and years of war.
The park rangers knew immediately what it was, they said, and in their frayed uniforms and rubber boots, they began hacking their way with machetes into the jungle-like forest. This time, it was Rubiga.
The rare mountain gorilla had been shot execution-style -- once in the back of the head and a second time in the hand. When the rangers found her hulking, lifeless body, her 2-month-old baby, barely alive, was still clinging to her chest.
"Everyone just started crying," recalled Jean-Marie Serundori, who helped wrap the body in plastic sheeting and carry it down the steep mountainside on a wooden stretcher. "We love these gorillas."
The killing of Rubiga last month was only the most recent instance of carnage inside Africa's oldest national park, a place that displays to varying degrees all the chaos and hope that Congo has to offer.
Like everyone else in this troubled country, the rangers here are struggling day by day to establish some sort of order following one of the worst wars in modern history, a conflict that left an estimated 4 million people dead and already weak state institutions near total collapse.
Like thousands of government workers across Congo, they are doing so despite having not been paid in more than a decade. And like most living in this eastern region bordering Rwanda and Uganda, the rangers are carrying on amid a sordid mess of militias and other groups whose interest in Congo's minerals, timber and other natural resources are best served by perpetuating chaos.
Lately, the rangers say, the struggle has become especially daunting.
In what seem to be crudely imagined attempts to sabotage the rangers' work, two male silverback gorillas were killed here in January, including one whose dismembered body was dumped into a latrine. The rangers suspect that Rubiga was also killed to send a message that their work is not appreciated.
During three months last fall, militiamen wielding AK-47s slaughtered thousands of hippos in Lake Edward, whose waters for a while turned red from the blood. In that instance, rangers believe, the slaughter was for money, the meat from one hippo fetching $300 on the open market.
For years, the park rangers themselves have been targeted. More than 150 have been killed in the line of duty during a decade of fighting among armed groups that want to use the park as their base, or by poachers who sell baby gorillas and hippo meat. The rangers also suspect people associated with the country's $30 million charcoal industry who depend on the park's trees and would rather Virunga be unprotected.
One ranger was recently found wandering in the forest, close to death, after escaping from a militia group known as the Mai Mai that had held him hostage as a guide and interpreter for two years. Another ranger bears a scar around his neck from a near-beheading. Earlier this year, one of the park's chief wardens, Paulin Ngobobo, was abducted and beaten with a whip of the sort once used by Belgian colonial rulers to subdue Congolese slaves.
Still, because of the gorillas, and because having a job in Congo, even a dangerous unpaid one, is better than not having one at all, the rangers continue their work.
"Congolese people live on hope," said Ngobobo, who has received more death threats than he can count. "They always think tomorrow will be better, and the day after tomorrow will be better, and soon, years and years have passed."
Virunga National Park was established in 1925 by the Belgians. It had intermittent heydays: There were royal visits in the 1950s, and during the 1970s, the zoologist Dian Fossey and others brought world attention to Virunga's mountain gorillas before leaving to work in Rwanda.
A rather eccentric kind of tourism flourished for a while during the 1980s, as backpackers and other adventurers trekked in to see the gorillas, recalled Serundori, who has worked in the park for more than 25 years.
"Sometimes tourists would spend a month here," he said. "People from Australia and England. . . . It was very good."
Then came the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when hundreds of thousands of armed Hutu militiamen and refugees fled across the border and into the park. The Rwandan army and the rebel forces of the future Congolese president, Laurent Kabila, on their way to overthrow Congo's longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, chased after the Hutus, unleashing a decade of fighting.
Though a peace agreement was signed in 2004, and Congo's first multiparty elections in four decades were held last year, the detritus of war has remained, especially here in the east.
In the past year, various militia groups have been essentially living off the park -- establishing ragtag bases there, eating or selling the animals or harvesting trees for charcoal. The 500 or so rangers who occupy run-down posts throughout Virunga have been forced to evacuate several times.
Despite the persistent insecurity, WildlifeDirect, a swashbuckling conservation group, and the Frankfurt Zoological Society managed in January to become the first conservation organizations to set foot in the park since fighting began in 1994. Members built a small, tented camp on a site occupied until recently by one of the most notorious militias in eastern Congo. They set up a satellite dish and began distributing boots, radios and other equipment to the beleaguered rangers, some of whom have begun blogging from the wilderness.
"This is Noela," Ngobobo wrote recently under a photo of a young gorilla lollygagging in dirt. "She was born on Christmas Day. . . . She spent yesterday playing with two backblacks, Congomani, who is 8, and Mukunda, who is 10."
Some rangers have spent their entire working lives patrolling the park. They have named all the gorillas, mostly after their fallen comrades -- Resi, Matuko, Gashangi, Janga -- and one after the recently elected president, Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent Kabila.
When they are not dodging bullets or being ambushed or kidnapped, the rangers spend their days hacking their way into the forest with old, rusted machetes. They climb muddy slopes, hop over logs and slide down grassy gullies tracking gorilla families that appear first as a tremble of leaves and grunts and at last like so many furry, black miracles in the dense tangles of green.
Then, in the thick quiet of one of the most violent spots on Earth, the rangers observe. They watch the gorillas hanging from the trees and tumbling around on the grass. They count them and sketch their noseprints in damp notebooks. They note how they play, how they eat. They know the Humba family from the Kabirizi and notice when Matuko's hair is discolored or Resi is agitated.
"They have a character almost like man," Serundori said. "They are very intellectual animals. For example, if one is walking and finds a snare, he stops the babies from going forward."
In recent months, the rangers' work has included destroying poison bananas left by poachers to lure the gorillas; they were scattered near Rubiga's family the day before she was shot.
After hauling her body down off the mountain, the rangers held a burial ceremony at their post headquarters, then had a drink. They bundled her baby, Ndakasi, off to a veterinarian in the city of Goma, near the southern end of the park.
"When a man dies, you have some questions, like: What mistakes did he make? Or what might have been wrong with him?" said Ngobobo, the chief warden, who decided that Rubiga's grave should be just a few feet from his office in the park. "But when an animal is killed like that, you really see the absurdity of man. . . . It's completely absurd."
More gorillas have been killed during the past year in Virunga National Park than are known to have been killed during the worst years of the war. With only around 700 mountain gorillas left in the world -- more than half of them in Virunga National Park -- each death equates to something like a massacre. The hippo population in the park has declined from 28,000 to fewer than 350, according to conservation groups.
"These killings are part of a worrying trend," said Emmanuel de Merode, who co-founded WildlifeDirect with the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. "We are not sure exactly why, but we are extremely concerned the situation is getting worse."
Even so, the rangers keep working with the hope that if the fighting ever stops, the park might again attract tourists; in neighboring Rwanda, gorilla-viewing is a multimillion-dollar-a-year business.
"It's like being an apostle," Ngobobo said. "You have to believe in the job first. You have to have an altruistic mind. . . . It is this chaotic situation that tells me I don't have the right to become discouraged or tired. Why am I going to get tired when there is so much to be done?"