It was about this time last year when four gorillas were murdered in cold blood in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A photo of the 530-pound Senkwekwe, head of the massacred gorilla family, being carried to burial by Congolese villagers, ignited international outrage and garnered the public’s attention, if only for a moment. Almost a year later, National Geographic has published a magnificent piece examining the gorilla murders in the Virunga National Park.
Poachers were quickly dismissed as suspects due to the intact remains of the animals, leaving soldiers from the Congolese military or two other rebel factions as the likely culprits. Soldiers on all sides of the conflict have wreaked havoc on local communities, killing indiscriminately and raping women, including children as young as three years old. Despite such acts, soldiers insist they are under strict instructions not to harm the gorillas.
So who — or what — explains the murders?
"Follow the trail of charcoal," Emmanuel de Merode had said at the WildlifeDirect office. "Charcoal is the biggest threat to the park."
Charcoal, as we discover over the next few days, is the main source of energy, and evil, in North Kivu. Charcoal is used by 98 percent of the households for cooking, boiling water to make it potable, and also for heat. In the city of Goma, a constant pall of charcoal smoke smudges out the sun and makes the rough streets, rumpled with hardened lava from the 2002 eruption of Nyiragongo, appear to be pathways to hell.
Hardwood charcoal is the economic prize in the DRC and it comes from old growth hard wood trees found within Virunga National Park — home to half the world's population of mountain gorillas.
A sack of charcoal sells for $25 on average. Doing the math De Merode estimates that in 2006, when gorilla tourism brought in less than $300,000, the Virunga charcoal industry was worth more than $30 million.
It is estimated that at the rate that charcoal is harvested from the park, the entire southern portion of the park will be gone in ten years. An area considered to be perhaps the most biologically diverse and best of its kind, may soon vanish.
Aware of these facts, and the local implications, neighboring Rwanda has banished the internal production of charcoal. However, this approach does nothing to mitigate Rwanda's own internal demand for the product. They just buy it from the Congolese.
But what does this have to do with the death of four gorillas in July 2007?
Writer Mark Jenkins met with Paulin Ngobobo, chief warden of the Virunga National Park, to hear his story. When Ngobobo worked for the National Parks he quickly realized that all sides were profiting from the charcoal trade, from the Congolese military to Hutu militias and local chiefs — even the park rangers. In a struggle for conservation of the gorilla's home, he realized that the charcoal trade had to be stopped in its tracks.
At this point Paulin Ngobobo was detained and beaten, allegedly by men directed by the former chief park warden, Honoré Mashagiro, who was actively involved in the very trade which was destroying the park he was charged with protecting. To discredit Ngobobo's anti-charcoal trade efforts it is alleged that Mashagiro had the gorillas killed and blamed their murders on Ngobobo. Despite Mashagiro's efforts, Ngobobo has been cleared of the accusations and remains free. Mashagiro, on the other hand, has been imprisoned in Goma and awaits trial for the killings of the Virunga mountain gorillas.
The story of the DRC's illegal charcoal trade is a difficult one. Who is to blame? A culture of corruption which ensures that park rangers and soldiers will smuggle charcoal to supplement a non-existent salary? Citizens of Goma and neighboring Rwanda who demand the charcoal for cooking?
One thing is for sure: along with peace, the DRC is also in desperate need of alternative energy sources.