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The Mountain Gorilla Massacre

Scientific name:  Gorilla Beringei Beringei

No one who looks into a gorilla's eyes - intelligent, gentle, vulnerable -
can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes;
we know that the gorilla still lives within us”.
     George B. Schaller 

The robust Mountain Gorillas are one of the most feared animals in the world, thanks to movies like "King Kong". While it is true that they are large, powerful creatures with the strength of ten human men, they are also gentle and affectionate. They face serious challenges in their regions including extreme poverty, the bushmeat crisis, aftermath of the civil war, disease and poaching. According to the African Wildlife Federation there are now only about 720 mountain gorillas left in the world and they are critically endangered.  All of them live within four national parks in West and Central Africa, split in two regions that are 28 miles apart.  One population inhabits the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and the second population is found in a mountainous region referred to as The Virungas in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This area of the world lacks economic development and infrastructure.  Despite the region’s natural wealth of resources,  it is one of the poorest areas in the world and the local people have suffered insecurity, war and extreme poverty for many generations.  Conflict in the area has been one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with the loss of over four million lives in the past two decades.   Caught in the middle of all this crisis are the endangered mountain gorillas, which are quickly being driven to extinction.  

After chimpanzees, the charismatic gorilla, the largest and rarest of all living primates, is our closest living relative among the world’s great apes, sharing 98.6% of our nuclear DNA.  It is perhaps surprising that an animal as enormous and strong as the gorilla is primarily an herbivore that eats over 100 different species of plants.  They rarely need to drink water because their diet is so rich in succulent herbs that satisfy their thirst.  The discovery of the Mountain Gorillas took place in Congo’s Virunga Mountains in 1902 on the ridges of the area volcanoes by Captain Robert Von Beringe.   The species was given the scientific name “gorilla gorilla beringe” in honor of the Captain.  The Virunga National Park - a 3,000 square mile expanse of forests, jungles, volcanoes, rivers and lakes - is Africa’s oldest national park with one of the most diverse eco-systems in the world and is also the home to nearly half of the world’s wild mountain gorillas.  

The primary threats to the species, aside from the civil war and conflict, comes from forest clearance, the illegal charcoal trade and the bushmeat crisis in the Congo Basin.  Here as much as 1 million metric tons of bushmeat is eaten each year (the equivalent of almost 4 million cattle) by as many as 30 million poor rural and urban people in that area.  With farming unprofitable and almost no off-farm jobs available, many rural people have resorted to hunting the wildlife that is free-for-the-taking.  The trade in bushmeat is leaving the forests stripped and empty.  There are also criminal gangs called “the charcoal mafia” running the illegal charcoal trade in the area that stalk the majestic apes like assassins out on a contract hit; killed in their own sanctuary.  The parks dense forest is rapidly being depleted to satisfy the demand for charcoal, which is used for cooking and heating by the millions of people living in the troubled region.  In the Congo alone poachers claim around 3,000 chimpanzees and 600 gorillas a year, leaving hundreds of orphans.  Gorilla infants tend to die in the first 2 to 3 weeks after capture.  

In Africa the shrub and forest areas are referred to as the bush; thus any wildlife derived from there is called “bushmeat”.  This term applies to all wildlife species hunted in those territories such as elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons, forest antelope, bush pig, porcupine, monitor lizard, guinea fowl, etc. The people of Africa’s equatorial forest region have been hunting and eating wild animals for over 100 years, and their meat of preference are the primates.  This commercial bushmeat trade threatens wildlife populations across West and Central Africa, where wildlife provides rural families with around 40% of their animal protein consumption.   Gorilla ribs and chimp arms are sold for meat in the markets across the Congo.  Gross sales of bushmeat are estimated at $50 million annually and primates account for 20% of that commerce.  A significant percentage of the animals being hunted for food are classified as threatened or endangered and are protected by international laws. “If we don’t respond to the bushmeat crisis, we may lose chimpanzees and other endangered species in Africa and around the world in the next 20 years”.  Dr. Jane Goodall (The Jane Goodall Institute)

Habitat loss continually threatens the long-term survival of the species, but hunting is now known to be the most immediate threat to most all wildlife populations around the world.  On average, current hunting rates in the forests of Central Africa are 6-8 times the maximum sustainable levels.  Over-hunting risks a whole cascade of extinctions, endangering the diverse landscape and wildlife that inhabit them. Investigators discovered that criminal gangs running the illegal charcoal trade are behind most of the killings and some were due to internal poaching.  

In recent years the region has been gripped by conflict and civil war.  Since August 2007, the gorilla sector on the national park has been under the control of rebel forces.  Until recently, officials had not been able to enter the area and many of the 1,100 rangers had to flee to safety with their families and over 150 have lost their lives in the past decade due to hostilities by various militia groups.  The great gorillas are being massacred in numbers as high as 300 annually for bushmeat and the exotic animal black market. Gorilla meat is easily smoked and passed off as buffalo, which makes it easier to sell openly in most areas.  Hungry humans can hunt and eat species to oblivion and as public awareness about the illegal selling of ape meat grows, the commerce goes underground.  

People in the Congo Basin eat as much meat as Americans and Europeans, and approximately 80% of their animal protein is derived from wildlife.  As much as one million metric tons of bushmeat is eaten annually in this area, which is the equivalent to almost 4 million cattle. Rural families eat bushmeat on average two days per week while families living in logging communities eat it two to three times more often.  Bushmeat consumption is expected to increase by 3% or more per year as human populations continue to grow. Commercial bushmeat hunting is one of the few currently available methods of generating income for many rural families.   As hunting technology improves, the ability of the hunters to kill more animals increases.  Shotguns and cable snares are replacing bows and woven nets as the preferred hunting tools. 

An undercover investigation by Endangered Species International has found that up to two gorillas are killed and sold as bushmeat each week in Kouilou, a region of the Republic of Congo.  Mr. Pierre Fidenci, President of Endangered Species International, also stated that “Gorilla meat is sold pre-cut and smoked for about $6 US per hand-sized piece.  Actual gorilla hands, used many times for ashtrays, are also available for about $6 US.  The gorilla meat goes to the nearest, biggest and most profitable place.”  According to interviews and field surveys, Mr. Fidenci estimates that “4% of the population of gorillas is being killed each month, or 50% in a year.”  

In Northern Congo, the Wildlife Conservation Society is working directly with timber companies to halt hunting of endangered and protected species such as apes, within logging concessions, to ensure wild meat is not transported out of the area and to provide workers with affordable alternatives to eating wildlife.  Securing long-term support for all protected areas of Africa will be the only survival solution for this species.  It is time that those who care about the survival and well-being of the apes, and all life in Africa, to confront this crisis. If the slaughter of protected and endangered species is to be stopped we must do so with and through the people who are now involved in the trade, from logging executive, to hunter to housewife. Conservation must pursue the bio-synergy of humanity and nature in order to find alternative ways to satisfy human needs that drive the destructive commercial trade in wildlife bushmeat in the local communities.

Article and most images by Christina Bush