Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepgaelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: Africa
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

See Rageh Omaar's full report for BBC2's Correspondent
 real 28k

Monday, 22 November, 1999, 12:09 GMT
Protecting gorillas in a war zone
Once guides looked for gorillas, now soldiers are concerned with guerrillas

By Rageh Omaar in eastern DR Congo

The forests of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are home to a unique natural resource - the lowland and mountain gorillas.

Yet they have also become a refuge for murderous terrorists. The Interahamwe militia have been killing the gorillas and have made gorilla tourism, for which the area is so well known, a very dangerous enterprise.

One warden has worked for 14 years in the park and in the past five years has witnessed its destruction.

Warden John Kahekwa has seen the park's destruction in the past five years
"There are many guns inside of the park. While we are patrolling, while we are locating gorillas, working amid them, they could kill us," said John Kahekwa.

"We have lost a third of the population of gorillas. Almost 200 elephants have been killed. I have been in the forest working every day for six months without seeing any path or any fresh droppings of elephant."

One family of gorillas we did find is headed by a female called Mugoli, which means "Queen" in the local language. Twenty-four members of the family have been killed and even those who have survived have been left scarred. One young male we saw had lost his right hand to a poacher's trap.

Park under pressure

Kahuzi-Biega Park stretches for 6,000 km2 (2,500 square miles), and it was where gorilla tourism in Africa was born.

But after the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994, over one million Hutu refugees flooded into Congo in a bid to escape responsibility and justice.

Huge swathes of forest were cut down as the refugees desperately tried to sustain themselves in their camps along the edge of the park.

And among the refugees were members of the Interahamwe militia. They set up bases in the park from which to destabilise Rwanda and launch their murderous attacks.

Two years later the park faced further disaster when Congo's civil war erupted.

Warders and guides have fallen on hard times
Nowadays, the headquarters of the park feels and looks far more like a military base, and it is the soldiers who now hold sway here, not the conservationists.

The park's director and his wardens still operate from the same offices - cheek by jowl with the soldiers - and patrol the park trying to guard the gorillas.

But the wardens now only control 10% of the park and poaching is widespread.

No village in the area is safe from the Interahamwe militia and after raiding a village they escape back into the park.

Maheshe's story

The story of Maheshe, the most famous gorilla in Congo, has come to reflect the park's sad fate.

The silver-back Maheshe achieved fame on the back of a note. Everybody in the Congo - or Zaire as it then was - saw him on the money. The local people from Lake Kivu to Atlantic Ocean, called the money Maheshe.

"Give me one Maheshe" means "give me a 50,000 note". The gorilla became a national symbol of Zaire.

Maheshe has become a symbol for the fate of DR Congo
He appeared in 1988 in the BBC's Holiday Programme and was very friendly.

But three years ago poachers tracked Maheshe through the forest and then killed him.

"When he was killed everybody in this country, it became like a song, like a slogan - Maheshe is killed. Who killed Maheshe?" said John.

Another gorilla believed to have been killed was Mushamuka, one of the stars of the film Gorillas in the Mist.

Battle for the heart of Africa
However, amid all the gloom we did get rumours of good news during my visit.

The trackers had told the wardens that a family of gorillas had returned to the forest. We trekked for four hours through the forest and we came upon more evidence.

The family, led by a male gorilla called Mishibere, had not been seen for two years. It was thought that he too had been killed. But eventually we saw something move in the bushes.

Survival against all odds

No one had known where Mishibere or his family had been hiding. But suddenly there he was again.

Mishabere: Found after being thought dead for two years
And John the warden was delighted: "It's a big surprise to meet Mishibere again once in my life because we expected him dead like his father is.

"We were very, very sorry thinking about his death. Since when he was a kid he played with us, he grew up, he get the silver back.

"If we protect very well Mishibere and Mugoli, the members of the group can increase and rebuild other families as before. We need peace to return again in order to rebuild the park."

But in the absence of that peace the park now symbolises the fate of Congo.

An enormous potentially rich land where there is no semblance of government, and where the Interahamwe continue to roam with their guns and their plans.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

See also:
31 Jul 99 |  Africa
Gorilla slaughter in Congo
02 Jul 99 |  Africa
Rwanda to re-open gorilla park
02 Mar 99 |  Africa
Interahamwe: A serious military threat

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Links to other Africa stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Africa stories