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

Share
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.

Devotion

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.

Anger

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: Graduate / Junior Software Developer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate/Junior Software Deve...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Store Sales Executive

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Sales Executive ...

Recruitment Genius: Night Porters - Seasonal Placement

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Night Porters are required to join a family-ow...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executives - B2B

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Genius Ltd continue...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Yorkshire Terrier waits to be judged during the Toy and Utility day of the Crufts dog show at the NEC in Birmingham  

There are no winners at Crufts. Dogs deserve better than to suffer and die for a 'beauty' pageant

Mimi Bekhechi
 

Daily catch-up: how come Ed Miliband’s tuition fee ‘cut’ is so popular, then?

John Rentoul
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn