Saturday, April 12, 2014

Human-Gorilla Conflict in Virunga National Park

In this post I will talk about human-mountain gorilla conflict in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The situation over there is heartbreaking, but I guarantee your faith in humanity will be restored when you read about the people who are working to save them. 

The Mountain Gorilla

The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is a Critically Endangered subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla that lives in high altitude forests (8,000-13,000 feet) in central Africa. Though all gorilla species and subspecies are in trouble, the mountain gorilla is one of the more extreme cases since there are fewer than 900 left in the wild (estimates range from 700 - 880 depending on the source). About half of the remaining mountain gorillas are located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. The other half live in the Virunga Mountains located on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda. About a half the Virunga mountain population (or 1/4 the overall population) are located in Virunga National Park, the area this post will focus on. This park is a UNESCO World Heritage site as well as Africa's oldest national park. 

Mountain gorilla exposing large canines

Despite their giant, scary appearance they are largely non-aggressive. They are the largest living primates. With males weighing as much as 440 lbs (females are much smaller at around 200 lbs) and standing up to 5.5 feet tall these guys could do damage, but instead they really just want to relax, play, and laugh. There's never been a recorded case of a mountain gorilla killing someone.

This is a great video of a tourist sitting by his cabin
and a group of wild mountain gorillas approaching him. The longer
version with his commentary at the beginning is here.

Mountain gorillas live in groups of around 10 individuals that consist of a large silverback male, sometimes a few younger males, and multiple females and their babies. The silver-back calls the shots in the group. He decides when the group wakes or sleeps, when they eat, and has exclusive rights to mate with the females in the group. Much like humans, the female mountain gorilla's estrus cycle is 28 days, their gestation period close to 9 months, and their babies, when born, are completely helpless. They nurse them for around three years, and stop ovulating for three or more years after giving birth, lending to their small population size. 

Their babies are awfully cute, eh?

The mountain gorilla's diet is 100% plant based, and they eat around 40 lbs of plant matter a day, which consists of over 100 different plant species. They also like to get drunk on bamboo sap.

This guy is going to have a really bad hangover tomorrow.
Image by Rex Features.
Source: The Guardian
So what's the problem for the mountain gorilla?

Threats/Conflict with humans

Habitat loss:

As you can see from the map, their remaining habitat is about what you'd expect considering their low numbers; you can view satellite imagery of habitat loss here. These guys are limited to two patches of habitat in the world, which encompasses four national parks. They're stranded on islands in a sea of people. There are no captive individuals because mountain gorillas cannot survive in captivity, meaning that if they are wiped out, there would be no way to repopulate. 

Deforestation and habitat degradation and are the greatest threats to the mountain gorilla, and to boot, their habitat being destroyed comprises half of Africa's tropical forest. This has occurred through slash-and-burn agriculture by local farmers, through felling of trees to make way for plantations, and from within the park due to illegal harvesting of natural resources. 

Park Border in Mikeno Sector of Virunga National Park.
This is a 2004 areal photograph of the Mikeno
sector of the park. Showing agricultural land to the
right, and forest to the left.
Source: NASA
I started writing an in depth section about habitat loss, but in doing so I realized that this topic is largely the symptom of two greater topics: war and harvesting of natural resources. Read on to see how it's all linked. 


As is the case with many endangered species, poaching is a harsh reality. Luckily, I don't think traditional medicine calls for the ingredient essence de mountain gorilla, unlike the rhino. Though other types of gorilla are poached for medicine elsewhere. 

Poaching for the pet trade is one way mountain gorillas, mainly baby mountain gorillas, are in danger. And since it is exceptionally hard to pry a baby away from it's very protective family, the method is usually to kill the family to acquire the baby. Poachers will kill for "trophies" to sell on the black market as well, usually heads, hands, and skulls. 

Veterinarian Jan Ramer was a member of the team that examined Shamavu following his rescue.
A baby rescued from poachers in 2011. One of four poached that year.
Picture courtesy of Virunga National Park. Source: NPR

A trophy gorilla hand.
Source: cells4gorillas

Another form of "poaching" of the mountain gorilla is actually accidental. Locals will put out snares to catch animals for food, and to use a fishing term, the gorillas end up as "by-catch." If they manage to get caught in the snares, they can lose hands and even die from infection. It's no small problem either, in 2009, in two months of patrols, 1,200 snares were found by rangers. In 2012, seven mountain gorillas were caught in snares, and two died. 

This is a Virunga National Park ranger showing the snares
collected in two months in 2012.
Much like habitat loss, much of the poaching is also a symptom of the two greater issues of war and harvesting of natural resources, so I've weaved it into the respective sections below.


It's nearly impossible to talk about anything related to the DRC and Rwanda over the past 20 years without mentioning war, and mountain gorillas are no exception. The war on the eastern coast of the DRC, where Virunga National Park is located, has not only caused death and destruction for the people, but for the wildlife as well.

Some history: I'll start with the assassination of the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, in 1994, though the roots of the problem stem farther back. After this a Hutu extremist group seized power in Rwanda and proceeded to commit genocide on the Tutsis. In a massacre that went on for 100 days the Hutu extremists killed 800,000 Tutsis, as well as Hutus who sympathized with the Tutsis. The Hutus were eventually overthrown and a suspected two million fled over the border into the DRC (at that time renamed Zaire by president Mobutu Sese Seko). Many of them fled into the Virunga mountains and the surrounding areas. In doing this they destroyed parts of the forest, one of the last homes of the mountain gorilla. An estimated 600 metric tons per day of fuel-wood was cut for refugee camps with the influx of the Hutu refugees. 

Refugees from Rwanda in Goma, DRC, after the genocide in 1994
Refugees from Rwanda in Goma, DRC, after the genocide in 1994.
Photograph: Jon Jones/Sygma/Corbis
Source: The Guardian
These refugees, many of whom were responsible for the genocide, staged attacks on the local people in the surrounding region, and further paired up with the corrupt president Mobutu to try to eradicate the large Tutsi population that had lived in the DRC for many years. They called themselves the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda. These attacks caused the locals to flee into the park to search for food and shelter. They brought with them human diseases that wreaked havoc on the gorillas, and also engaged in some poaching for food. During this time at least 18 gorillas died throughout the Virunga region, four were silver-backs.

Map showing the location of different rebel groups in eastern states of Democratic Republic of Congo
A more recent map of rebel groups in the DRC
Source: BBC

The now Tutsi-run government of neighbouring Rwanda was not happy with the attack on the Tutsis in the DRC. They began to back militias to fight both the Congolese government and the Hutu groups. The Tutsi militias, and some groups backed by Uganda, eventually marched on the DRC and overthrew the government. Throughout this entire time, militias were creeping around Virunga, wreaking havoc on the park rangers lives, and the gorilla and their habitat.

The Rwandan Tutsi government installed president Laurent Kabila after Mobutu was overthrown. The new president would rename the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as it had been called before Mobutu, and also gave the Congolese great hope that the chaos would finally end. But, unhappy with his performance, the Tutsis tried to remove him from office when he failed to purge the Hutu groups from the DRC. He wouldn't go down without a fight, and asked for help from Namibia, Angola, and Zimbabwe. This act put all six countries and other militia groups at war with one another on Congolese soil for five years. 

Congolese rebels pictured north of Goma in November 2008
Congolese rebels in 2008.
Source: Associated Press

This war officially went on from August 1998 to July 2003. However, devastating violence and poverty in the aftermath kept the death toll rising, and by 2008 5.4 million people had died. This war pushed more people into the forest, many fleeing from violence. Interestingly, throughout all this, somehow the Rwandan gorilla population managed to increase by 10%, though I'm unsure how.

Judging by per-capita income, the DRC is the poorest country in the world, no doubt in large part due to the never ending war and chaos. 

The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR, a Hutu group), along with the Congolese army and other rebel groups, such as the Mai Mai group, and the infamous Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony, have been wreaking havoc on the DRC to this day. Thankfully, things have slowed down, and as of last year the Rwandan anti-government group M23 was taken down by the Congolese army, and they took back towns M23 had been occupying. I am also happy to report that Virunga National Park is officially OPEN to tourists as of February this year!

Harvesting of natural resources

Another facet of the war and conflict that can't be left out is natural resources. Though natural resources certainly didn't cause the war in the DRC, groups have been fighting over them. Money gained from the illegal harvest and trade of these resources has helped fund rebel groups to continue the war. Mines within Virunga National Park contain minerals used in virtually all mobile electronics, such as coltan and gold. Someone made a documentary about this, you can see a little about it in a video clip here

Coltan Mine in the DRC. 2007.
Image by Mvemba Phezo Dizolele.
Source: University of Michigan

These minerals are very valuable and can fetch a pretty penny. They also add another facet of hell to what's going on because militias tend to force people to work in mines, including children, and the mining itself destroys the gorilla's habitat. Logging for charcoal production is another illegal activity within the park, which also directly destroys the mountain gorilla's habitat. 

In addition to the harvest of resources causing habitat loss, poaching is also an issue. These mining camps will hire professional poachers to kill gorillas to feed the people.Though it doesn't make up a huge part of their diet, any poaching is devastating when a species has so few individuals left. But, that isn't even half the problem.

A poached gorilla in 2007.

Mountain gorillas aren't only killed for food, but for trophies and revenge. In fact, it seems mostly for revenge. Ten mountain gorillas were killed in 2007 alone. The director of the park, Honore Mashagiro, was arrested in relation to the killings. You can read the bittersweet story of one of the orphans from that massacre named Ndakasi here (she was named after a beloved park ranger). Park rangers are also killed in relation to the natural resource conflict.  So what is the revenge for? The park rangers get in the way of illegal operations to acquire natural resources within the park, which angers the offending parties. The 2007 killings were thought to be revenge by the charcoal mafia for the rangers getting in their way.

Here is a news program from 2007, where Anderson
Cooper goes to the DRC and talks to the rangers
about the gorilla massacre and the conflict surrounding
the harvest of  trees for charcoal.

A new threat to the mountain gorillas has emerged recently. Unrelated to war. In 2010, SOCO, a British oil company began to drill in Virunga National Park. In 2012 plans to press ahead with oil exploration were announced, particularly in the region of Lake Edward, the source for local fishermen. This could be catastrophic for the local people and the wildlife. Habitat could be destroyed, lakes polluted, and agriculture put in danger. You can put your clicktivism to work by going here and signing the WWF a petition to stop the oil exploration within the park's boundaries.

Resulting conflict:

No doubt the influx of people from the war has lent to the Virunga region being one of the highest populated areas in the DRC:

© Revenga C., Nackoney J., Hoshino E., Kura, Y., Maidens, J. 2003.
Watersheds of the world. IUCN, International Water Management Institute,
Ramsar Convention Bureau, WRI. Washington, DC : WRI.
Source: WWF

With high populations surrounding the park, plus shrinking habitat, it's inevitable that mountain gorillas will wander outside of the park. When this occurs conflict can ensue if the gorillas raid crops, which isn't unlikely, since they're huge lovers of all things plant. This can result in injury or death if farmers retaliate. And being that this is one of the poorest areas in the world, farmers protecting their food sources at any cost isn't beyond reason. So, what is being done to protect these guys?

Conflict Resolution

Unlike many places where people need to be taught to respect wildlife, many people in the DRC already seem to have that down pat. Their conflict mitigation programs largely consist of passionate, dedicated people who lay it all on the line for the mountain gorillas.


To reduce conflict between people and gorillas within the park, the park pangers patrol daily. These guys are on par with superheroes. They, very literally, risk their lives every day to protect the park and it's wild inhabitants. Over 130 rangers have lost their lives since 1996, making Virunga the most dangerous national park in the world. 

Here is a taste of what goes on there, and what the rangers
have to face to do their jobs. 
Originally viewed through this page.

The ranger program has been around for quite a while, but after the gorilla murders in July 2007, the program stepped up a notch... or three. They knew change needed to happen if the gorillas were to be adequately protected.

Here is the park director telling the story
of this very trying time at a TED talk.

Firstly, as we know, the director of the park was arrested. And in an unusual decision, Emmanuel de Merode, a foreigner, was appointed to take his place in August 2008. He is the man you see speaking in the video above. Unfortunately, after this another war broke out and the rangers were ousted from the park by rebel groups. They thought they may never be able to return to the park. In an act of amazing courage, Mr. de Merode and his three senior officers entered rebel territory and negotiated with warlord Laurent Nkunda, who agreed to allow them into the park. Now that they were back in action, according to a report from the park, the rangers needed to be retrained, military style. Further program reform included a logistics department that would ensure the rangers get the supplies and provisions they need in a timely fashion, and more modernized equipment. All things that are of great importance if the rangers are to perform their jobs well.

Rangers patrolling the park. Courtesy of Virunga National Park.
Source: Environment News Service
The resulting paramilitary rangers are responsible for patrolling the forest, tracking the gorillas, dismantling snares, stopping poachers, and shutting down illegal operations that put the park, and the gorillas, at risk. They even "un-poach" some mountain gorillas. How, you ask? By going undercover and pretending to be customers interested in buying poached babies. I think the proper word to describe Mr. de Merode and his team is "AMAZING".

Here is a video from 2009, showing an
undercover operation.

Bullet holes in the sign outside the ranger station. Rebels have been known
to come by and shoot the ranger station to get hold of the rangers equipment.
Source: Africa Geographic blog
Their work takes an unbelievable amount of bravery. The number of rebel groups and illegal operations in the park is often significant. In recent years a number of rangers have been killed by rebel groups. In fact in January 2014 one ranger was killed and another two seriously injured in an attack by the FDLR. The suspected reason for the attack? Revenge. Their job is to protect their park and the gorillas- which often amounts to pissing off and annoying the heck out of all the people doing illegal things in the park. So, sadly, dealing with vengeful criminals is part of the job description. Two more were killed in October 2012 by the Mai Mai rebel group, and 17 were lost in 2011 (which is spoken about in the TED talk I linked).

Funeral for a fallen ranger.
Source: Environment News Source
Meet some of the rangers of Virunga HERE

HuGo Volunteers

The park rangers are paid (which doesn't make them any less amazing), but there are another group of people who put themselves in the line of fire for absolutely no personal gain, the Human Gorilla Conflict Program (HuGo) volunteers. I cannot find much information about this program in Virunga National Park directly, though we know it is active. These volunteers are a community based resource to help the park rangers carry out their job of protecting the mountain gorillas. They used to primarily have the job of chasing gorillas back into the park when they'd wander out, to mitigate conflict with farmers. But apparently the gorillas have gotten used to it. They've now started helping the rangers with their patrols. Here is one of the few articles I found with them mentioned in conjunction with Virunga National Park, where a HuGo volunteer and a ranger reported the birth of a new, adorable baby!

HuGo members, who are community volunteers, received new uniforms and boots with support from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, and coalition member WWF-Sweden.
This group went through first-aid and operational training last year.
Source: International Gorilla Conservation Program

This sounds like a great program. I am a huge proponent of getting communities involved in protecting their wild animals. 

So what happens when the gorillas do get out of the park? 

Capture and transport

If people can't manage to usher the gorilla back into the park, it will need to be taken back to the park by intervention. This has been a problem with the son of one of the gorillas slain in 2007, his name is Mukunda. The method to get them back to the park is to sedate, and then transport them back into the forest.

Mukunda being transported back to the forest.
Source: Gorilla Doctors
This operation is pretty wild, in a whole different way than the chaos I've been throwing at you.  But here is the general gist as far as I understand it. To do this, veterinarians need to dart the gorilla and wait for it to pass out. Then the painstaking process of getting the animal onto the board or platform starts. After which the sleeping giant will be loaded into a truck and driven into the forest. All the while, it's vital signs need to be monitored to make sure it is handling the anesthesia alright, and more anesthesia needs to be administered to keep the big guy sleeping for the journey. I imagine it would be really, really awful for the gorilla to wake up while still in the truck-- I imagine lots of arm flailing and people (and the gorilla) freaking out. It's a slow, painstaking process, and all the while anything could go wrong. As you may know, anesthesia is not always kind, meaning there is always a chance of complications. I imagine loading and unloading from the truck also leaves the possibility of dropping and injuring the patient. Once to the spot of release, reversal drugs will be administered and ideally someone will stay until the gorilla is awake. You can read a good, full description of an operation here

It is very sad that this needs to be done, since it's really the humans who are destroying the mountain gorilla's habitat. It's just not large enough for them anymore. But, if the species is going to survive, they need to be kept away from people. So, how do we get them to stay in the park? 

Electric Fences

Despite the vigilance of the rangers and volunteers, the mountain gorillas don't always stay within the park. With the human population increasing around the gorilla sector of the park, more needs to be done to keep the people and wildlife separate. A 54 kilometer electrified fence is being constructed for this purpose. This will provide a physical barrier, in addition to the human effort. 18km has been completed, but they're in need of donations to continue the project. You should donate here. A pilot fence was already installed in the northern part of the park and it's been working to keep the wildlife from munching on people's delicious crops. The folks spoken about above have so much to worry about within the park itself, once this project is completed at least they (hopefully!) won't have to worry about human-wildlife conflict outside of the park's boundaries, which I am sure they will appreciate. 

100 meters of the 54km to be fenced -- a big project indeed.
Part of the electric fence being installed.
Image courtesy of Virunga National Park
If you know more about the human-gorilla conflict resolution efforts within Virunga National Park, please post in the comments section or drop me an email.

All in all, every story of human-animal conflict will be unique, as will the solutions. But this story shows something that I think is very special- the ability of the rangers to keep their hearts open to the gorillas in an environment that could harden even the nicest people. Conservation and human-wildlife conflict mitigation are tall orders in a place like the DRC, and I salute everyone who is involved.

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