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Rumbles in the jungle

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Telegraph, Saturday 5th June 2004

In the past decade, the gorilla population in the Congo has plummeted, mainly because of armed rebels and heavy mining operations. Stanley Johnson went to see how the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is trying to redress the situation.

The escort vehicle was waiting for us at the roundabout. The Toyota pick-up had backed up against a great mound of lava, a grim reminder of the time two years earlier when Goma, on the northern shore of Lake Kivu in eastern Congo, had nearly been overwhelmed by the eruption of Mt Nyiragongo.

The previous day, when we flew into town, we had seen how the molten flows had pushed their way - at 40mph - across the runway itself. The lava was still there, wave after wave of dark, now inert rubble. Under the best of circumstances, pilots had to be bold to fly into Goma. Now they had to be super-bold because the runway had lost at least a third of its former length.

There were four armed guards in the back of the pick-up, AK47s bristling defiance. The route we would be taking that morning was still considered insecure. For years, the Interahamwe rebels had been using Kivu's forests as a base. Now the Rwandans had decided to take the fight to the opposition. Ten miles out of town, once you pass the remains of the refugee camp, you can see the Rwandan army dug in above the road - yet this is still officially Congolese territory.

We headed that morning for the Jomba patrol post in the Congo's National Park of the Virungas. Jomba lies in the easternmost part of the Congo, where three countries - Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) itself - meet.

When we got there after a three-hour drive on rough roads, the park ranger took us through the drill. "Don't eat food in front of the gorillas," he said. "Don't smoke. Don't use a flash. If you have to defecate, bury your droppings at least one foot deep. Remember, gorillas can catch diseases from man."

Tunnelling our way through vegetation so thick you wondered if you would ever come out the other side, we trekked at least two hours that morning before taking our first break. Trackers went ahead of us and armed guards followed. During the brief pause, I exchanged a few words with the ranger. Speaking in French, he told me that his name was Kivuya.

"In the past four years," he said, "four guards have died. On January 4, 1999, two guards who were following the Kwitonda gorilla family group were killed. On August 6, 2000, I myself escaped an Interahamwe attack at park headquarters. Two other colleagues were killed." He beckoned one of the other guides. "This is Sebirembo Bwoba. He also escaped."

As I shook hands with both men - it seemed the least I could do - Kivuya added: "We are proud to give our lives for the gorillas." Just at that moment, the radio he was carrying crackled into life. One of the trackers ahead of us was calling in. "This is Mike Papa." "Come in, Mike Papa."

Moments later, we came across gorilla dung and some chewed bamboo sticks. "How recent are these traces?" I asked Kivuya.

The guide shook his head. "One or two days old."

Greg Cummings, the executive director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (I am one of the trustees), took an upbeat view. He is an upbeat kind of man, which explains why the fund went on working in the Congo during years of civil war while other NGOs (non-governmental organisations) pulled out or left only skeleton staff.

"Gorillas like to stay within about one or two square miles. We'll find them soon."

Four hours later, tired and muddy and with our water bottles long since exhausted, we staggered back into camp. The total number of gorillas seen was zero.

I ought to explain that the particular subspecies of gorilla that we had been hoping to see that day is known as the Mountain gorilla. The latest count gives a world total of 680 Mountain gorillas. Of that total, 300 are to be found in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the remaining 380 in the Virungas, the population being split between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC.

Next day, we tried again. Rather than revisit Jomba, we drove over bumpy unpaved tracks to the patrol post at Bukema, on the slopes of Mt Mikeno. As we bounced and swayed through the villages, hordes of children ran out after us, shouting: "Padire! Padire!" ("Padire" is a corruption of padre. Because most of the white men first seen in the region were priests, the term has come to be used generically for any fair-skinned visitor.)

Our second day's trekking was no more successful than the first and no less tiring. We trudged up and down and in and out. That there were gorillas present on the slopes of Mt Mikeno was not in doubt. The signs were plentiful and by now we had learned to recognise them. Once we came across a gorilla nest and the guide/guard explained: "This is last night's nest. This is the path he took this morning."

But six hours of steady trekking through the forest brought us no closer to our goal. By 4pm, with two hours of daylight left, it was time to return to base. The park warden offered what comfort he could. "Too many elephants," he said. "They messed up the tracks."

There was indeed some consolation there, I thought. It was good to know that elephants still survived in the Congo's Virunga National Park, whatever might have happened to the gorillas. I'm not sure Andrew Crowley (The Daily Telegraph photographer) was convinced. He wanted that picture of the Mountain gorilla.

"Remember when David Attenborough is sitting there with his back to the gorilla and suddenly the gorilla takes a run at him and knocks him over?" he said. "That's what we want to see!"

"Not with me in the frame," I replied.

Well, Andrew got his gorilla shots in the end, not in the Virungas, but in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which lies to the west of the Goma-Bukavu road. It wasn't a picture of a Mountain gorilla. There are no Mountain gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega. It - or rather, he - was a Grauer's (or Eastern Lowland) gorilla, an 18-year-old silverback known as Chimanuka.

By now, we had shifted our base of operations to Bukavu at the southern end of Lake Kivu. To get to Kahuzi-Biega, you drive along the west shore of the lake for about an hour, threading your way through crowds of women bearing goods of every kind on their heads. At one point, I saw a woman carrying no less than five thick mattresses.

We were being escorted that day by John Kahekwa, the director of the Pole-Pole Foundation (POPOF), a local NGO with which the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund works.

"Don't the men ever carry anything?" I asked him.

"Sometimes they carry the umbrella!"

We had set off from the park headquarters at Tsivanga at about 10am and spent the next two hours following a wildly gushing watercourse upstream, climbing steeply all the time. The trackers, as usual, were somewhere up there ahead of us and messages were passed regularly on the radio.

After a particularly strenuous uphill stretch, when it seemed that we were dragging ourselves up a vertical slope clutching at roots and branches, we heard a sudden stentorian roar as a fully grown male gorilla burst out of the undergrowth.

I knew what I was meant to do. The chief guide at Tsivanga, Robert Mulimbi, had briefed us. "If a gorilla charges, stand still," he said. "Lower your head. Look submissive." He looked pointedly at me. "Better wear a hat. If they see your fair hair, they may think you're another silverback."

Yes, I knew what to do all right. But when Chimanuka sprang from the bush in all his glory, I didn't stand my ground and lower my head. I jumped behind our pygmy tracker and held my breath.

This was a huge and magnificent animal. I had never seen anything like it before. We share 96 per cent of our DNA with gorillas. Man and gorilla may descend from a common ancestor.

Shock and awe. That's what you feel when you first see a gorilla in the wild.

Chimanuka must have charged us half-a-dozen times that morning. He seemed to enjoy it. The pattern went as follows: a charge would be followed by a period of chewing the cud. He would sit on his haunches, rolling his eyes and swiping the available vegetation with his long prehensile arms so as to grab any surrounding fruits or succulent stalks. After 10 minutes or so, he would rise, turn away from us to show off his magnificent coat (it really is silver), before crashing off again through the undergrowth.

But he never went very far. It was almost as if he wanted us to catch up.

He seemed to wait for us. Perhaps that is what being "habituated" means. At all events, our team of guards and guides would take out their pangas and thwack away and, a few minutes later, we would have the benefit of a repeat performance.

Paradoxically, even though there are still more Grauer's gorillas in the world (and all of them in the DRC) than Mountain gorillas, the threat to the Grauer's may be more acute.

Take the eastern, more mountainous part of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the part we were in that day. In 1996, there were 254 gorillas there. Four years later, the number had fallen to 130. Today, there are probably less than 100. The continued presence of armed rebels in the park has been a major factor in this.

As far as the much larger western part of Kahuzi-Biega is concerned, the situation is even more dire. There are certainly substantial contingents of armed rebels inside the park. Another factor is the presence of as many as 8,000 "artisanal" coltan miners, mainly poor people who have made their way into the park to work the alluvial deposits of coltan or to quarry the minerals from the rocks.

As far as the gorillas are concerned, the combination of the two has been lethal. Nobody knows for sure how many Grauer's gorillas are left there. At one time, there were more than 10,000 in the lowland part of Kahuzi-Biega. Now the figure may be less than 1,000.

The DRC's Ministry of Mines has passed a decree banning mining in national parks, but, realistically, desperately poor people who have the chance to make some money from mining (still not much more than a pittance) cannot easily be told to stop. The tantalum that can be extracted from the coltan ore is a key ingredient in capacitors for laptops and mobile phones and, obviously, the international demand is extremely heavy.

Starting from the assumption that it is simply not realistic to prevent coltan being mined at all, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is trying to ensure that any coltan mining that does take place should be outside the park.

One day, we went to visit some coltan mines beyond Kalehe, three hours by road from Bukavu. When at last we reached the village of Bushushu, we found ourselves negotiating with the village chief, Juvenal Rushishu. At first, he seemed less than delighted by our arrival.

"Today is market day," he said. "The mines are shut. And it's late."

It was indeed market day and getting on for 4pm, but in the end Juvenal relented and personally escorted us through the banana groves. We followed him up the hill behind the village. The slope was pitted with deep holes and digging was still going on. Most of the diggers were school-age children and there could be "as many as 10 children to a hole", said Juvenal.

"Why aren't they at school?" I asked.

"School costs money," he said. "How can these people pay for school fees? At least the mines bring some income."

One of the reasons the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is working in Bushushu is the belief that the best way to conserve wildlife is to improve the livelihoods of local people. The fund has started a micro-credit scheme with a pounds 50,000 primer grant. Working through POPOF, they have set up workshops where pygmy women use sewing-machines to make clothes.

John Kahekwa explained the thinking behind the project. "We have three sewing centres, each one with eight machines," he said. "The sewing provides an income and it keeps people out of the forest." Although trappers do not expressly target them, their snares can catch gorillas and chimpanzees.

The fund also supports micro-credit schemes and funds small-scale agriculture and reforestation projects around the park, once again with the aim of removing pressure on the park's natural resources.

Perhaps the most ambitious exercise the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is engaged in is an attempt to shift coltan mining outside the Kahuzi-Biega National Park altogether. In the past couple of years, it has organised meetings in Durban and Arusha. Government officials, NGOs, industrialists and miners have come together to discuss how to ensure that no more mining takes place in protected areas. They have had some astonishing successes. The German company HC Starck, for example, which is the biggest coltan purchaser, has agreed not to buy any coltan originating inside the park. But there is still a long way to go.

I flew on from the eastern Congo to Kinshasha to see Olivier Kamitatu, the charismatic president of the Congolese National Assembly, and other Congolese officials. Happily, my visit coincided with that of Samy Mankoto, who works for Unesco and who is a former director of the DRC's wildlife agency.

Mankoto and I were delighted when Kamitatu signalled his full support for the United Nations Great Ape Survival Project Partnership (GRASP), sponsored jointly by UNEP, the UN environment agency, and Unesco. GRASP aims to unite all 23 great ape "range states" - 21 in Africa (including, of course, the DRC) and two in South-East Asia - in a common enterprise. The governments of industrialised countries that wish to assist in great ape conservation programmes will be part of this common enterprise. (Britain, for example, has already provided substantial support to GRASP).

Kamitatu went even further. He told us that the DRC was ready to host an international conference on all great apes - gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and orang-utans - next year. The aim of such a conference would be to adopt a global strategy for the conservation of great apes and to encourage the necessary funding to be made available for a range of conservation programmes and projects.

International meetings, of course, can never be a panacea. But they can help. And the DRC could indeed be a propitious place for such a meeting to be held. During the long years of civil war, almost all the DRC's national parks have suffered catastrophic declines in wildlife populations, including elephant and rhino, as well as gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. What has happened outside the parks is anyone's guess.

Calling a high-level intergovernmental meeting to address the situation may be precisely the spur the country needs. If, coincidentally, the armed bands rapidly disperse and the weapons which are now so widespread in the country are somehow gathered in or neutralised, then at least one threat to the DRC's wildlife - probably the most acute threat at the moment - will have been removed. There may then be more time, more energy and, one hopes, more resources - both national and international - to build a new future for the gorillas and for so much else.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is a UK registered charity dedicated to saving gorillas throughout their habitats in Central Africa. Please support their work with a donation: call 0870 241 0843.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is now the Gorilla Organisation www.gorillas.org.


By Stanley Johnson, Copyright The Daily Telegraph, 2004. Published in The Telegraph 5th June 2004


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