Colombian and Congolese wildlife guardians were ambushed
RONCESVALLES, Colombia; VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of Congo––Simultaneous sad reminders of the human cost of wildlife conservation came on January 10, 2021 from the Reserva Loros Andinos in southwestern Colombia and Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Reserva Loros Andinos and Virunga National Park occupy comparably embattled regions of mountainous equatorial cloud forest in South America and central Africa.
Both the Reserva Loros Andinos and Virunga National Park have been recognized as habitats of unique conservation value for more than 100 years. While Virunga has been a protected region at least on paper since 1925, however, simultaneous efforts to document and preserve the parrot habitat now within the Reserva Loros Andinos disintegrated during the Great Depression and did not resume for approximately 70 years.
Gonzalo Cardona Molina
The Reserva Loros Andinos confirmed the murder of Gonzalo Cardona Molina, 55, by unidentified criminals believed to be either cocaine growers and traffickers, wildlife poachers and traffickers, and/or would-be revolutionaries.
Nicknamed “Gonza,” Gonzalo Cardona Molina was the first forest guard hired by the Fundación ProAves. He was assigned to protecting yellow-eared parrots soon after the species, believed to have been extinct, was rediscovered in April 1999 after a year-long search by a team jointly funded by the American Bird Conservancy and Fundación Loro Parque.
The team found 81 individual parrots in the cloud forests of the Andes near Roncesvalles, Colombia, not far from where Gonzalo Cardona Molina grew up on a farm near the village of Tolima.
A place of last stands
The community, ironically, is named for the place in the Pyranees region of Spain where in the year 778 the Frankish folk hero Roland made a heroic last stand to save the emperor Charlemagne’s retreating army from a Basque ambush.
When the Reserva Loros Andinos, headquartered in Roncesvalles, was dedicated in 2009, Gonzalo Cardona Molina was promoted to conservation director. The reserve is the hub of an 18,000-acre Threatened Parrot Corridor that spans both slopes of the Central Andes, funded by ProAves Colombia, Fundación Loro Parque, the American Bird Conservancy, the Rainforest Trust, and Chicago philanthropist Frank Friedrich Kling, who bought more than half of the land involved.
Gonzalo Cardona Molina was reported dead two days after he was reported missing, having last been seen near the village of La Unión, in Valle del Cauca county.
He had completed a national census of yellow-eared and Fuertes’ indigo-winged parrots in December 2020, Fundación ProAves said, documenting the existence of 2,895 yellow-eared parrots, reportedly the most seen since the early 20th century. Historically yellow-eared parrots also ranged into northern Ecuador, but were poached out decades ago by trappers serving the exotic pet trade.
Gonzalo Cardona Molina and fellow forest guards and researchers frequently encountered “life-threatening situations” from the armed factions in the vicinity, but had nonetheless been so successful in promoting parrot conservation that the yellow-eared parrot was downlisted from “critically endangered” status to merely “endangered” in 2010 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Some of the success in conserving yellow-eared parrots was accomplished by public relations activities, including a brightly painted “parrot bus,” described by Forbes as “a mobile classroom that visits hundreds of schools around the country,” reportedly reaching more than 150,000 children.
As important, Gonzalo Cardona Molina and team learned that yellow-eared parrots feed chiefly on the fruits of Quindio wax palms, designated the national tree of Colombia in 1985.
Gonzalo Cardona Molina was reportedly among about 350 field biologists and forest guests killed by armed factions in Colombia in 2020 alone.
Six rangers massacred in Virunga
Approximately 7,000 miles straight east along the equator, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo on January 10, 2021 confirmed the deaths of six park rangers.
The six, and a seventh ranger who was wounded but survived, were shot in an early-morning ambush attack by one or another of the armed guerrilla factions haunting Virunga since 1994, when Hutu militia members fled into the park from neighboring Rwanda after massacring about 800,000 members of the Tutsi tribal faction, along with Hutu moderates.
The seven rangers were “on foot patrol inside the park,” according to the Virunga National Park web site, “near Kabuendo, in the central sector, between the villages of Nyamilima and Niamitwitwi.
“No opportunity to defend themselves”
“Preliminary investigations indicate that the rangers were taken by surprise and had no opportunity to defend themselves,” the Virunga National Park announcement said.
The dead rangers included Surumwe Burhani Abdou, 30; Alexis Kamate Mundunaenda, 25; Reagan Maneno Kataghalirwa, 27; Eric Kibanja Bashekere, 28; Innocent Paluku Budoyi, 28; and Prince Nzabonimpa Ntamakiriro, 27.
They were the first Virunga National Park ranger deaths of 2021, following the murders of 14 rangers in 2020. More than 200 rangers are believed to have been killed in Virunga National Park during the past decade, from a ranger force currently numbering 689.