Investigations into last month’s killings of five mountain gorillas in their Virunga habitat in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have started.
The UN Education Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are undertaking the joint probe.
Heidrun Simm, the head of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) Congo Programme, confirmed yesterday that the team has been joined by their counterparts from DR Congo’s Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).
“Investigation started last week and we’re waiting for the findings,” Simm said in a telephone interview from DRC.
She, however, declined to comment on whether reports that the investigating team has already identified some suspects.
Justin Rurangirwa, the Chief Park Warden of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, said their DRC counterparts haven’t yet communicated to them about the investigations.
Last week, the online National Geographic news agency reported that conservationists in the DRC suspect people associated with the charcoal trade could be the ones behind the gruesome killings.
“The gorillas have become a hindrance for the charcoal trade,” the agency quoted Emmanuel de Merode, director of WildlifeDirect, a conservation group based in DRC as saying.
Merode said that since the last 15 years of Congo’s history were characterised by illegal exploitation of natural resources “the charcoal trade definitely fits into that reality.”
He estimated that the charcoal trade in Goma, a town of 500,000 people in eastern DRC, alone is worth $30 million.
The dealers are reportedly organised into local associations, which Merode and rangers claim are making charcoal from inside forests of Virunga National Park.
Paulin Ngobobo, one of the rangers, said that confronting the people in the charcoal trade is dangerous as everyone involved is making money from the lucrative business.
Both men are convinced that last month’s killings of mountain gorillas are linked to the charcoal trade.
“None of the gorillas was cut up,” Merode said, adding that: “In the history of gorilla conservation, there’s never been an incident like this where a group is attacked not for meat or baby gorillas.”
The Virunga Park’s dense forests are reportedly being depleted of trees to satisfy the almost insatiable demand for charcoal, which is used for cooking and heating by the millions of people living in the troubled region.
Clearly, the booming trade is not only wrecking havoc on the park but also on its most famous inhabitants, the rare mountain gorillas.