Since I’ve been home I’ve kept an eye out for any local coverage of East Africa. American newspapers spend little time covering anything happening outside the United States and it’s rare that I find anything that relates to my recent trip. Unfortunately, this morning I found a tiny news item about the D.R.C. buried in the front section of The Chicago Tribune. Fighting in The Congo has escalated in the Eastern part of the country, where I visited in mid-June. As many as 10,000 refugees are fleeing back and forth across the borders and into the Kisoro area of Uganda. The ranger stations in Virunga National Park have also been attacked and all of the rangers (whose job it is to protect the gorillas) have been forced out of their posts.
I haven’t written about my gorilla trekking experience here yet but this hits close to home. Because all of the permits for Uganda were sold out and Rwanda had already raised its price to $500 I decided to take a chance and trek the gorillas in The Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), formally Zaire. It wasn’t high season yet and I might have had a chance at a permit in Rwanda but when I met a group of travelers returning from D.R.C. proclaiming it safe I decided to head West.
Another traveler, Grace (who you may remember from my posts from Rwanda), was also looking for a permit so we left together. The bus from Kampala, the Ugandan capital, to Kisoro took all day—from sunrise to sunset. Kisoro is about fifteen miles East of the Congo border, near where The Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan borders meet. It’s North of Goma, which is a larger border town accessed from Rwanda. We had a good experience, just the two of us with two national military guards in our car (armed with rifles) and seven rangers on our walk through the forest (armed with machetes and machine guns).
It wasn’t until we got back into Uganda that we learned that two gorillas had recently been poached, a ranger had been killed and a tourist had been robbed and sent back to the border completely naked. Everyone in a position of authority had declared The Congo completely safe. So it’s not surprising to see these reports, but I hope no tourists have been caught in the crossfire, armed with mis-information from greedy tour operators. It seems that these incredibly endangered animals aren’t getting any safer, despite being on Unesco’s World Heritage List. It’s sad to think that These beautiful animals that posed for me back in June could now be slaughtered to make ashtrays.
If you’re interested in the situation there are many recent stories available on the internet about the fighting as well as the gorillas:
September 4, 2007
Rare Gorillas Helpless as Congo Rangers Flee Rebels (National Geographic)
Rebels loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda on Monday surrounded two ranger stations inside Virunga. The men seized rifles and communications equipment and forced park workers and their families to evacuate. Fearing imminent attack, rangers fled a third post, Bukima?the gorilla-monitoring camp. Since then rebels have overrun Bukima…
September 4, 2007
Thousands more civilians flee new clashes in eastern DR Congo, UN reports (UN News Service)
In a related development, some 10,000 Congolese crossed into Uganda?s Kisoro district yesterday evening, saying they were fleeing fighting between the DRC military and renegade troops. By this morning, the majority had already begun returning home. Due to general insecurity in North Kivu, especially at night, such rapid population movements are relatively frequent.
September 5, 2007
New fears for Congo gorillas as rebels seize Virunga reserve (The Independent)
The difficulties of protecting endangered species in such a region are clear, and five national parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo are listed by Unesco as World Heritage Sites “in danger”. In Virunga, nine mountain gorillas have been killed since the beginning of the year. In January two lone males were shot in an attack which was widely attributed to General Nkunda’s troops. A female was then killed in June, and three females and a male slaughtered in late July. It is thought these attacks were carried out by charcoal traders, who are illegally felling the park’s trees for fuel. The Congolese government has brought in various measures to try to protect wildlife, yet the job of policing the parks has become increasingly dangerous, with more than 120 rangers killed by poachers and rebels in the past 10 years.
September 6, 2007
Fighting in eastern Congo forces thousands to flee to Uganda (Citizen.co.za)
KAMPALA ? The United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday that at least 10 000 Congolese refugees crossed into Uganda Monday following renewed fighting between the Congolese army and renegade troops in the north-east of the vast country.
The refugees – mostly women and children – crossed at Bunagana border post, about 500 kilometres west of Kampala and were receiving relief assistance from the UN and other charities…
September 5, 2007
Congo fighting lights flame in regional tinderbox (Reuters)
September 5, 2007
DR Congo: UN relief chief deplores recent violence in far east (UN News Service)