Resurgent Ebola and COVID-19 escalate threats to already high-risk habitat
VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of the Congo––At least 17 people, including 12 Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation rangers whose primary duty is protecting critically endangered mountain gorillas, were killed in an April 24, 2020 ambush attack.
No gorillas are known to have been caught up in the firefight, but the loss of rangers brought total ranger corps deaths in defending the Virunga gorilla and chimpanzee habitat to 176 since the year 2000––just as the embattled region faces new political and economic stress from a resurgent outbreak of Ebola virus, compounded by the arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
“About 60 fighters from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Hutu rebel group, ambushed a convoy of civilians that was being protected by 15 rangers,” reported Guardian Africa correspondent Jason Burke, paraphrasing Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation director Cosma Wilungula.
Though the rangers were carrying AK-47 semi-automatic rifles, they apparently had little chance to use them.
Elaborated the Virunga National Park web site on April 25, 2020, “Initial investigations indicate that the rangers were on their way back to their headquarters [at the town of Bukima] when they encountered a civilian vehicle that had been attacked, and subsequently came under a ferociously violent and sustained ambush. We can confirm that the perpetrators of this attack were the armed group FDLR-FOCA,” meaning the so-called Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, one of many armed militias operating in the region.
Formed by some of the leaders of the 1994 Rwandan genocide of Tutsi tribe members, the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda have occupied a substantial portion of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, including Virunga National Park, ever since fleeing the return of Rwanda to Tutsi rule.
Virunga overrun by Mai Mai Katanga militia too
“The rangers of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature are agents of the state responsible for the application of the Law on the Conservation of Nature. They do not have military status and their actions do not fall under the law of conflict,” the Virunga National Park web site explained.
“The Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature will spare no effort to bring to justice, in accordance with the law, the perpetrators of this vile attack,” the Virunga web site pledged.
Recounted Burke, “Virunga National Park, in North Kivu province, has a reputation as one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world,” Burke added. “It faces multiple security threats, including illegal charcoal production, smuggling, and poaching, as well as from the Mai Mai Katanga militia,” who have long sought political independence for Katanga province, just south of Virunga National Park.
Five rangers & driver killed in April 2018
Detailed Fred Kockott for Mongabay, “In April 2018, five rangers and a driver were killed by suspected members of an armed militia. The park was closed to tourists a month later, after attacks by the Mai Mai targeted a park vehicle carrying tourists, and another incident in which two tourists were kidnapped and then released the next day. The park was only re-opened to visitors in February 2019, after a review of security and reinforcement of the 600-strong contingent of guards who patrol the park’s 3,000 square miles.
“The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda effectively controls the southwestern part of Virunga,” Kockott added, “profiting from the production of high-quality charcoal from Virunga’s hardwood forests. Park rangers have not been able to patrol that part of the park since the 1990s––despite a drive to recruit, train, and better support the ranger corps, starting in 2007.”
Guerrillas & COVID-19 jeopardize gorilla tourism
The Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda are together home to about 1,000 highly endangered mountain gorillas. Tourists coming to see gorillas are a leading source of employment and income in all three nations.
Revenue from tourism is, in turn, a major factor in promoting stability in a region where most other sources of employment and income involve habitat exploitation and are controlled by the warring guerrilla factions.
Either resurgent fighting or a deadly communicable disease racing through the gorilla and chimpanzee populations, however, could jeopardize income from tourism for years.
The Democratic Republic of Congo therefore on March 22, 2020 closed Virunga National Park to visitors at least until June 1, 2020, reported Rodney Muhumuza of Associated Press, “citing ‘advice from scientific experts indicating that primates, including mountain gorillas, are likely susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus.’”
Rwanda suspended gorilla tourism a day later, and Uganda followed on March 25, 2020.
Gorilla tourism in the region had already been disrupted when a February 3, 2020 lightning strike killed three adult female mountain gorillas, one of whom was pregnant, and a newborn infant, from the Hirwa group in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda.
The Hirwa group, with a dozen survivors, is among the most viewed mountain gorilla families. They originally lived in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, but crossed into Uganda in August 2019.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Volcanoes National Park are both adjacent to Virunga National Park, to the north and northeast, respectively.
95 years of strife
Violence in the region began, noted Stephen Corry of Survival International earlier in 2020, when “The very first national park in Africa, now called Virunga, was instigated in 1925 by American hunter and taxidermist Carl Akeley. Akeley kept trophy rooms; they are visited today by millions in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The very first gorilla he spotted nearly a century ago is on display. The hapless creature’s first encounter with its white cousin was its last. Akeley immediately shot and stuffed it.
“In Virunga, as with other African parks subsequently,” Corry wrote, “the tribal owners were unceremoniously pushed off their lands,” touching off guerrilla resistance that has seldom ceased for long.
Virunga “struggled in the immediate aftermath of DRC independence in 1960,” recalled Burke of the Guardian, “but flourished under President Mobutu Sese Seko, who took power in 1965,” enjoying considerable World Wildlife Fund patronage while becoming reputedly the global kingpin of ivory trafficking.
Rangers paid $250/month
“The park suffered further during the civil war that followed Mobutu’s chaotic fall in 1997,” Burke narrated. “Virunga’s mountain gorilla population declined to 300. It has since risen to more than 1,000, and the numbers of other animals such as forest elephants are also rising.”
Virunga National Park now operates, Burke summarized, through “a partnership established in 2007 among charities funded by private donors, the European Union, and the Congolese wildlife service.”
The ranger corps, under Belgian director Emmanuel De Merode, are recruited from nearby villages, and paid $250 a month, about six times the DRC average household income.
13 dead in attack the day before
The ambush massacre of rangers on April 24, 2020 was apparently unrelated to an attack the day before in northeast Ituri province, just north of Virunga National Park.
“Seven civilians were killed by militiamen, army spokesman Jules Ngondo told Agence France Press,” AFP reported.
“The army neutralized ten assailants,” Ngondo added.
The United Nations radio station at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, in western Itrui province, put the toll at 13 civilians dead.
Continued Agence France Presse, “Both sources blamed that attack on members of CODECO––whose official name is Cooperative for the Development of Congo––an armed political-religious sect in Ituri drawn from the Lendu ethnic group.”
Farmers vs. herders
Democratic Republic of the Congo army general Yav Avuli on March 25, 2020 told media that government troops had killed CODECO leader Innocent Ngudjolo and nine others, including “his battalion commander named Dritsi and five of his bodyguard, his wife, and two drivers.”
The attack in Ituri was believed to be retaliation.
Strife between the majority Lendu, who are predominantly agriculturalists, and minority Hema, who are mostly pastoralists, brought the deaths of as many as 50,000 people in the region between 1999 and 2003. Most of the dead were Hema, according to a United Nations assessment.
After a 14-year lull, the fighting resumed in December 2017, leading to massacres of as many as 700 people in 120 villages, again mostly Hema.
Despite the ethnic violence, reported Reuters, “The Democratic Republic of Congo was two days away from declaring the end of the world’s second largest Ebola epidemic when a new chain of infection was discovered on April 10, 2020, following more than seven weeks without a new case.
“Two new vaccines have had a major impact in containing Ebola,” Reuters explained, “but
public mistrust and militia attacks have prevented health workers from reaching some areas hit by the virus.
“Late last year ,” Reuters continued, “deadly attacks on health center in and around Beni,” just north of Virunga, “forced aid groups to suspend operations and withdraw staff from the last strongholds of the epidemic.”
As of late April 2020, the multi-year Ebola outbreak had killed 2,267 people, with 1,169 survivors.
Weakened capacity to fight COVID-19
Then came COVID-19, a largely hypothetical but much feared possibility when Virunga National Park was closed on March 22, 2020, but now a reality that has killed at least 28 Congolese, sickening at least 416, according to the Worldometer page on COVID-19 statistics.
“When the first case of COVID-19 in the Democratic Republic of Congo was declared in early March 2020,” reported Philip Kleinfeld and Robert Flummerfelt for The New Humanitarian on April 13, 2020, “the country’s once-packed Ebola treatment centers had been empty for weeks. It was hoped resources could be shifted to combat the new disease.”
Instead, Kleinfeld and Flummerfelt continued, “As the spread of coronavirus accelerates across the country, health authorities now have to juggle both responses – while also treating those affected by the world’s worst measles epidemic, an outbreak of cholera, and the victims of Congo’s many ongoing conflicts.
Hard times build support for militias
“Unlike Ebola, which was contained to the east, COVID-19 has already spread from the bustling capital city, Kinshasa, to the country’s conflict-affected eastern provinces,” leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo desperately short of funding and foreign aid to fight a disease which has already put the global economy into a tailspin.
“In Beni,” wrote Kleinfeld and Flummerfelt, “where Ebola decimated families and orphaned children, residents are now struggling with soaring food prices and depleted markets as coronavirus restrictions bite.”
“During all of this,” Beni community leader Kizito Bin Hangi told Kleinfeld and Flummerfelt, “the population gets poorer and more desperate, more likely to support the rebels. It will be a vicious cycle,” Bin Hangi predicted.