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Independent Appeal: Conservation in a war zone

The Gorilla Organization's work to protect endangered primates is formidably difficult, but it is also helping people to find ways to live that don't include destroying the rainforest. By Michael McCarthy

The gunmen came out of the forest at dawn. "They were shielded by the mist," said Jean-Claude Kyungu, the senior scientist at the Mount Tshiaberimu research station. He meant the ghostly white clouds that drift over the hills of the Virungas National Park, the mist of Gorillas in the Mist.

They took the ranger post by surprise and peppered it with gunfire. When they left, after the attack early on a Sunday morning in May, 15 of the staff who monitor Mt Tshiaberimu's gorilla population were hostages, three were badly wounded, and one was dead.

Welcome to wildlife conservation, Congolese-style.

Heart of darkness, the novelist Joseph Conrad labelled it a century ago, and in the past decade the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has thoroughly lived up to the label. Not only does this vast nation, Africa's third biggest, have crippling poverty and soaring rates of disease it has been the location of the biggest, bloodiest and nastiest armed conflict the continent has ever seen.

As many as four million people are thought to have died, with millions more displaced from their homes, during the Second Congo War, "Africa's World War", fought from 1998 to 2003 after several African nations intervened on opposite sides of a battle for Congolese power. The colossal scale of the suffering, however, has hardly penetrated Western consciousness. Nor has its particular brutality, especially as far as women are concerned, with mass rape being used as a widespread and systematic weapon. And nor has the fact that the savagery is still being carried on around the country, despite official peace, by warlords and insurgents.

The DRC is in many ways a nightmare land, a gigantic nation close to being a failed state, with government authority often tenuous at best, and infrastructure a shambles.

Yet paradoxically, this enormous chunk of Africa's equatorial belt, the size of Western Europe, not only contains more than 60 million desperately needy people, it holds in its rainforests, the most extensive on the planet outside the Amazon, much of the world's rarest and most spectacular wildlife.

Key species range from the okapi, the forest-dwelling cousin of the giraffe, which was only discovered in 1901, to the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee, the fourth of the great apes, which is found nowhere else.

In particular, in the east of the country where the fighting has been fiercest, the DRC holds two of the four subspecies of gorilla, the eastern lowland gorilla, extremely scarce with a population of several thousand, and the celebrated mountain gorilla, which with a population of no more than about 700, is one of the world's rarest animals.

Many of these creatures are direly threatened already by the clash between wildlife and poor people, which increasingly is making conservation in Africa such a difficult problem to resolve. But what happens when war is thrown into the equation, and war on the scale and of the cruelty that the Congolese have had inflicted upon them? How on earth can wildlife conservation be carried on then?

The answer is, with great difficulty, and sometimes at the cost of lives. Yet brave and determined people are doing it.

In a leading role among the bodies which are trying to look after Congolese wildlife in near-impossible circumstances is The Gorilla Organization (GO), one of the three charities featured in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. GO, originally the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe, began its efforts more than 15 years ago by working to save the mountain gorillas of the Virunga massif, the animals which Fossey, the American primatologist, had made famous in Gorillas in the Mist, her worldwide best-seller.

The Virungas are a chain of extinct volcanoes that straddles the mountainous border of three countries, the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, and it was on the Rwandan side of the frontier, where most of Fossey's own work took place, that The Gorilla Organization first concentrated its efforts, which focus on getting local communities actively involved in conservation, rather than policing operations aimed simply at stopping people doing things.

A decade ago, however, it spread its operations into Congo, realising that the conservation problems for mountain and eastern lowland gorillas were even more critical on the other side of the massif; and work in the DRC now forms the biggest part of The Gorilla Organization's programme.

Its formidably difficult context cannot be understood without a glance at recent history, beginning with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when extremists in Rwanda's majority ethnic group, the Hutus, launched a large-scale slaughter of the minority but once-ruling group, the Tutsis.

Over a period of 100 days, perhaps half a million Tutsis were clubbed, hacked with machetes, tortured and shot to death (along with many thousands of moderate Hutus, let it be said) in a horrifying massacre in which the international community in general, and the UN in particular, singularly failed to intervene.

But this did not just cause terrible suffering in Rwanda: it destabilised the whole region, as millions of Rwandan refugees fled westwards over the Congo border. These included large numbers of extremist Hutu militiamen, known as Interahamwe, who had been instrumental in the killings and now fled. They feared the retribution of the army of exiled Tutsis that had regained control of the country, led by Paul Kagame, who is now Rwanda's president (thankfully a moderate who is at great pains to bring about reconciliation.)

The regional turmoil led directly to the two internal Congo wars, of 1996-97 and 1998-2003, but the vast tide of exiles, large numbers of them violent killers, has itself also impacted directly and fearfully on wildlife conservation projects in the eastern part of the DRC, above all those concerned with protecting gorillas.

The Gorilla Organization has been lending support in four different areas, all fairly close to the Rwandan border: at Mount Tshiaberimu, where a tiny and isolated pocket of gorillas remains to the north of the Congo's Virungas National Park; at the park itself, home of the mountain gorillas, which is run by the Congolese wildlife authority; at the Walikale community reserve, which holds large numbers of eastern lowland gorillas; and at the Kahuzi-Biega National Park further south, which similarly holds a lowland gorilla population.

In all these places GO has been trying to put community conservation into practice, seeking to make alternatives available to needs which might mean local people encroaching on to the protected areas that are the gorillas' reserves.

Such alternatives can range from extensive tree-planting, to give a source of wood for building and fuel other than the rainforest, to helping livestock farming so that people do not go hunting in the national parks for meat. Illegal traps set for game often catch gorillas with fatal results.

Yet everything is made more difficult (and dangerous) by the continuing violence in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the two Congo wars and the colossal refugee influx. In the eastern DRC where the gorillas are and GO works, even now three armed groups are still causing havoc.

One is the Interahamwe, the Hutu killers who are living as armed exiles in the forest, emerging to terrorise the inhabitants of the local villages: they are some of the nastiest people on earth. Another is the Mai-Mai, a semi-official Congolese armed militia, whose actions often run out of control. And a third is the army of an independent Congolese warlord, General Laurent Nkunda, who sometimes fights both the previous groups as well as the army of the Congolese government.

In the past week, fighting between Nkunda's troops and government forces has intensified, and fears are growing that the country may be on the brink of a whole new war.

It makes for a situation in which death and pillage and rape are a constant threat to local people struggling to make a living, and in which it is astonishing that any wildlife conservation, community-based or not, can be attempted at all. Yet it is.

The price, however, is sometimes a steep one. The attack on the GO-funded post on Mt Tshiaberimu in May, by Mai-Mai gunmen who later turned out to be teenagers no less deadly for that was typical of the situation in which frontline conservationists, especially the rangers of the Congolese wildlife agency, can find themselves. Perhaps the biggest price ever paid for conservation, in terms of human life, has been paid in recent years in the eastern DRC: more than 120 wildlife rangers, whose salaries are sometimes non-existent, have been killed in the violent turmoil.

But the conservation effort continues in spite of it all. People such as Jean-Claude Kyungu, who travels for several days to get to his post, remain upbeat about their work: Jean-Claude Kyungu himself, a GO employee, is remarkably phlegmatic about the dangers he faces. "Mt Tshiaberimu's gorillas are isolated, but they're doing very well," he said. "When we started looking after them and monitoring them 10 years ago, they numbered only 16. Now there are 22 of them. That's the important thing."