The betrayal of John Kahekwa: how Britain let down an inspirational conservationist from Congo

Five years ago our Environment Editor travelled to Bukavu to meet a man who has dedicated his life to lowland gorillas. What happened after is a tragic farce

Related Topics

There really are some God-awful places in the world in terms of human suffering, but one of the God-awfullest is the eastern half of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which for most of the past 20 years has been ravaged by war. The provinces of North and South Kivu, in particular, which adjoin the border with Rwanda, have been devastated by fighting that spilled over from the Rwandan genocide of 1994. More than five million people are thought to have died in a conflict sometimes called “Africa’s World War”, as nine African nations and up to 20 armed groups became involved.

It’s a war whose brutality is staggering. For example, when a notorious warlord, Laurent Nkunda, captured Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, in 2004, an estimated 16,000 women were raped in a single weekend (Nkunda is now in a Rwandan jail). The eastern DRC is as dangerous and difficult to live in as anywhere – people struggle daily with poverty and disease, never mind the conflict – and, under the circumstances, you might think nobody would give a minute’s thought to anything like wildlife conservation; but you would be wrong.


John Kahekwa, who comes from the Bukavu region, has spent his whole life trying to look after the eastern lowland gorillas – one of Africa’s most spectacular species – in one of the continent’s most magnificent protected areas, Kahuzi-Biega National Park. But as with many African parks, the protection is nominal rather than absolute, and much of the wildlife has been hit by poaching, This climaxed when the park’s and the DRC’s most famous gorilla was killed. He was the silverback, or adult male Maheshe, known throughout the country because he appeared on the Congolese 5,000-franc banknote.

Mr Kahekwa spent years combating poachers (he rose to become the park’s chief ranger) but eventually realised that because much of the poaching had its origins in poverty, the only way to keep the wildlife safe was to get the local community involved in protecting it. So he set up the Pole-Pole Foundation, devoted to bringing the interests of local people and the national park together in a whole series of ways (for example, 47 of the most active poachers were re-trained as wood-carvers).

Five years ago I went to Bukavu and met Mr Kahekwa (and I went with him to Kahuzi-Biega and saw the gorillas, which was unforgettable). I thought the work he was doing with Pole-Pole was exceptional and I wrote about it. But now he has recognition greater than a mere newspaper article. In the celebrated Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, is the Marjan Centre for the Study of Conservation and Conflict, which looks at just how on Earth people like John can do what they are doing with war going on around them. This year they have given him their Marsh Award, which honours and rewards such individuals.


So far, so appropriate; but John was not present at the awards ceremony in London on Monday, as he was due to be, because the British embassy in the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, fouled up his visa application: they lost his fingerprints. This was despite him travelling the 950 miles from Bukavu to Kinshasa, and staying there for a week, at considerable expense, in late July – three months in advance of his journey.

Mr Kakekwa’s disappointment, and the anger of King’s College staff, are both extreme. Richard Milburn, of the Marjan Centre says that at the ceremony, where the noted primate conservationist Ian Redmond accepted the award on John’s behalf, “people felt it was truly shameful to deny access to someone like John, who is an incredible person and a real unsung hero”.

Personally, I think the incompetence of the Foreign Office and UK Border Agency staff in the case is disgraceful; they should indeed hang their heads in shame.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference