The Complexity of Gorilla Conservation in the DRC

The Complexity of Gorilla Conservation in the DRC


Words by Mélanie Gouby

Photographs by Malick Bodian

When it comes to conservation, even seemingly simple solutions have complex consequences. Fortress conservation works by drawing a boundary between humans and the rest of the natural world—with both paying a price.

Emerging from his late-morning snooze on a cozy bed of vines, Bonane barely notices us at first. Amid the foliage, his massive leathery hand slowly reaches for his face, pinching his nose bridge and rubbing his eyes as Lambert Chirimwami, Kahuzi-Biega National Park’s head ranger, grunts gently to announce our presence, imitating the familiar sound of gorilla hospitality. “Errrrhmmmm…” Bonane sits up slowly and stares, a little dazed, sizing us up for a minute. Having determined that this group of humans poses no danger, the silverback grabs a branch and begins to munch on its leaves. 


Chirimwami and his team of rangers have been tracking Bonane and his family since early this morning, following a trail of evidence left behind by the group when they moved from their night dwelling. Here, a nest made of branches. There, warm feces filled with Myrianthus seeds, a round fruit gorillas enjoy during the dry season. Today, the trail has led to this opening in the canopy where the rangers can check on the health of each member: four babies, four females, and the dominant male. This is a task rangers must carry out daily to monitor the gorilla families that live in the high-altitude sector of the park and have been habituated to human presence for tourism and science.


The silverback’s towering stature might make him appear invincible, but this is an illusion. Bonane belongs to the critically endangered eastern lowland gorillas (also called Grauer’s gorillas), a subspecies endemic to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kahuzi-Biega National Park is located. An estimated 6,800 individuals remain in the wild across the species’s range, including about 1,500 in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a vast area of primary tropical forest stretching over nearly 1.5 million acres from the shores of Lake Kivu. 


Further north, mountain gorillas—a distinct subspecies from eastern lowland gorillas—roam the misty slopes of a volcanic triangle straddling eastern DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, making the region one of the most important for gorilla conservation in the world. Here, Virunga National Park was established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park, paving the way for the creation of Kahuzi-Biega and several other parks and reserves. But years of conflicts in the African Great Lakes region have taken their toll on both gorilla subspecies (there were around 16,000 eastern lowland gorillas in the mid-1990s according to sources on the ground, more than double today’s population). With a growing, impoverished human population, competition over land and resources has been on the rise, forcing conservationists to confront difficult questions over the legitimacy of their methods.

These photos were shot in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, which is contiguous with Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, separated only by a national border.

The parks, created under Belgian colonization and dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule, follow what is called a fortress conservation model: one that fully excludes humans from their boundaries. The idea to put aside vast areas of land for the protection of nature and to ban human activity from them emerged in the late nineteenth century in the United States with the creation of Yellowstone National Park, a movement that did not recognize Indigenous communities’ symbiotic relationship with the ecosystems within which they live. The concept caught on globally, as elites and heads of states sought prestige by creating beautiful nature parks to indulge in a safari lifestyle. In 1925, Albert I of Belgium designated an area of the Virunga Mountains as Albert National Park. At independence, it was renamed Virunga National Park, but little else changed. Mobutu, a military dictator backed by Western powers during the Cold War, did not seek to change a conservation model in vogue with his supporters and enjoyed hunting safaris in the parks himself. 


“Under the Belgians and Mobutu’s rule, people had no say in the country’s governance,” explained Legrand Cirimwami, a researcher in forest ecology and biodiversity management. Now, as the country emerges from two civil wars that followed the demise of Mobutu in 1997, the parks have come into conflict with a growing local population who depend on natural resources for its survival. Local communities have begun questioning who determines access to the land and why they should be excluded from it. The Batwa people—commonly referred to by the pejorative term “pygmies”—who are Indigenous to the forest were expelled from their ancestral home by the state during the creation of these parks. They have remained marginalized and destitute, leading to violent confrontations with park authorities and allegations of human rights abuses. “Today, the key to ensuring gorillas are protected is to find a way to reconcile people’s needs with the protection of the environment,” said Cirimwami.


Legrand Cirimwami understands intimately the complex web of interests playing out around the national parks. Hailing from the village of Nindja, located on the edge of the corridor between Kahuzi-Biega’s high-altitude and low-altitude sectors, the researcher grew up experiencing firsthand the tension between the park and the community’s needs. Like millions around the country, people in Nindja rely on dead wood and charcoal to cook at home, for lack of another source of energy. The vast majority of people in DRC’s rural areas have no access to electricity, and cutting trees for charcoal is often the only option available to them. Hunting has traditionally provided them with proteins, another activity that directly clashes with the park’s mandate.


“Kahuzi-Biega was established in 1970 and then brutally expanded five years later. The extension was a failure: it was badly done, communities were not consulted, and many villages came into conflict with the park,” says Cirimwami. The park expansion cut communities off from an even larger area of the forest and its resources, without providing them with any alternatives. “Now they hate the park. When I come home, people know I work in conservation, and they are afraid of me. They think I might be a spy. It’s very painful.” 


Gold and coltan (a mineral used in most electronic devices) mines have popped up across the region, providing an additional source of revenue for communities. But in addition to destroying precious ecosystems, the sector has been associated with bushmeat hunting, as miners often spend weeks in remote areas where other sources of fresh food are inaccessible. A study led by an international team of scientists in 2015 found that poaching around mines, while primarily targeting small mammals, has sometimes led to the killing of Grauer’s gorillas and poses an additional threat to their survival.

With the wars and the proliferation of weapons in the region, armed groups have emerged in spaces where the state has not played its protective role for communities because of its absence, its ineffectiveness or, as in the parks, because its strict conservation interests run directly counter to the interests of the population. In Kahuzi-Biega, as in Virunga National Park, rangers have come under attack from local militias running the illegal trade in charcoal or minerals within the parks’ boundaries. 


“In some parts of [Kahuzi-Biega], armed groups are in charge, not the rangers. A few years ago, I was meant to inventory plant species in 10 plots in the low-altitude sector. I negotiated access with several militias but forgot one. When we arrived, they were so mad we had to run away with gunshots fired at our heels,” recalled Cirimwami. 


In 2007, tensions in Virunga National Park reached a boiling point when the mafia networks benefiting from the illegal charcoal trade massacred four gorillas to intimidate rangers working to protect park resources. André Bauma, a ranger, was among the men who found the dead animals in the forest shortly after their slaughter. “I still remember the feeling of dread that overcame us all. This was a clear message sent to us. Powerful people wanted to make us stop do[ing] our job,” he recalled. Two orphaned baby gorillas were later found in the forest, barely surviving after their mother had died. Bauma took it upon himself to nurse them back to health, later creating a wild gorilla orphanage at the park headquarters. It was named Senkwekwe after one of the slaughtered gorillas. 


In more recent years, Kahuzi-Biega has experienced a low point of its own when Chance, a deserting captain of the Congolese army, formed a militia and manipulated Batwa people to gain access to the high-altitude sector of the park, where he ran mining and logging operations. Between 2017 and 2020, Chance and his men secured a vast area where on any given day 300 men from the surrounding communities came to extract gold in exchange for a fee of $4.50 per miner and half of their loot, according to lawyers from TRIAL International. If the miners couldn’t pay, the militia men would torture them.


Chance was finally arrested in May 2020, tried, and sentenced to perpetuity for his crimes. The park was granted reparations, but the crisis brought to the fore the much deeper, complex issue of the park’s relationship with local communities and especially the Batwa. “Chance utilized the Batwa’s anger against the park to gain access to the forest. They provided the local knowledge to set up the operation in exchange for being paid daily fees and the illusion that they were taking their revenge on the park,” explains Guy Mushiata, the DRC coordinator for TRIAL International, an international NGO that provided legal support. 


Over the years, Chance’s men had killed several rangers in fierce battles, but a recent report by Minority Rights Group International alleges that the rangers also committed atrocities against the Batwa during their operations. The report details how at least 20 Batwa were killed, including children, and dozens of women were raped. TRIAL International is now supporting an investigation into those alleged crimes. 

At the heart of the problem is the question of whether the Batwa—and by extension, other local communities—should be allowed to come back into the parks and steward the land, and if yes, how and to what extent. “Congolese law already gives Indigenous people many more rights than the park implements,” says Mushiata. “But maybe social justice requires [us] to go further.”


In a small roadside restaurant in a village bordering Kahuzi-Biega, I met with a group of Batwa men for a chat about their relationship to the forest. Galuma Niwendanabo, born in 1952, remembers the time when, as a child, he lived with his parents in what is now Kahuzi-Biega National Park. “We would never get sick because we used trees to eat and cure illnesses,” he recalled, speaking through a translator, saying that what he missed the most was the diet the forest provided. “The honey…we never ate manioc or beans as we do now. Many people died when we left the forest.” Niwendanabo has no illusions that Batwa could one day go back to the way they lived, laughing out loud at the suggestion and pointing to the younger generation’s “modern” habits. “But we need to access our medicinal plants and practice our rituals in the forest. Otherwise it will all be lost. Our knowledge, our identity.” The park would be remiss to lose this ancestral knowledge, for since the park’s inception, Batwa trackers have been at the heart of gorilla conservation efforts, leading the way in the dense forest where others would get lost and finding gorillas far more intuitively and quickly than rangers. 


Recently, the park has agreed to provide the Batwa access to the forest once a year for spiritual initiations, Cirimwami told me, a marked step in the right direction but hardly the revolution that is needed to build peaceful collaboration. Countless studies have now proved Indigenous people to be the best guardians of their land, but empowering them to take the lead in Kahuzi-Biega would require changing the law or declassifying the park, steps that make conservationists nervous. 


Beyond the Batwa, finding common ground with local communities is paramount to ensuring that the parks of eastern Congo still protect something for decades to come. In Virunga, park authorities have led an ambitious development program, building several small hydropower plants that intercept the rapid flow of mountain rivers on the park’s periphery to provide electricity to Goma, the province’s capital, and surrounding villages (the plants don’t need to retain water to function and have minimal impact on the ecosystem). They hope that in the medium-term, communities will be able to make the switch from charcoal to clean energy, but the price of electricity remains a barrier for many households.

Near Kahuzi-Biega, Legrand Cirimwami has created a local social enterprise to develop alternatives for the population. He is currently working on a mushroom-growing business: mushrooms are a popular source of protein that grow locally but aren’t yet used commercially. “There are so many opportunities for green growth in the region, we just need more support and thinking outside the box,” he said. “The violence, the poverty, the corruption, the destruction of the environment are all linked together. But we can change that. The forest is very resilient.” 


Incidentally, the gorilla population in the Oku Community Reserve, a reserve managed and protected by its local community, appears to be much more stable than in neighboring Kahuzi-Biega. While extractive activities like mining are not allowed in community forests, people are still able to develop the land for uses such as agriculture following a sustainable management plan. Community forests offer an alternative path to gorilla conservation and could play a crucial part in helping preserve gorilla habitat. 


In the Virunga massif, the population of mountain gorillas has bounced back to 1,063 individuals from just 240 in the 1980s. And a 2021 study of Grauer’s gorillas using nest counts across Kahuzi-Biega and the Oku Community Reserve found that the number of eastern lowland gorillas is much higher than previously thought a decade ago, from 3,800 to 6,800. “I was very surprised at the findings as our message in 2016 was that the situation for the gorillas was pretty catastrophic,” said Deo Kujirakwinja, coauthor of the study and newly appointed Wildlife Conservation Society director to Kahuzi-Biega, in an interview with Mongabay. The gorillas are still considered critically endangered, but their future could be looking brighter. 


Back in the forest, Bonane has decided to climb onto a tree, hell-bent on reaching a branch covered in delicious leaves, and comically almost slips out of balance. Reaching the top, the silverback pauses to chew happily, blissfully oblivious of the visitors down below and the turmoils of conservation efforts carried out in his name.

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