War in the Congo: Its impact on people and wildlife

Consider this my one tirade for the week:

We are a zoo and conservation organization and although we realize the terrible toll war and conflict take on human lives, this is not our expertise. So when we post stories on these regions, our focus is wildlfe but we never forget the human part of this tragedy. There are so many positive stories of conservation efforts that incorporate wildlife protection and the development of human communities which are mutually beneficial. But humans will be humans and conflict boils over in regions such as this whether it is over boundaries, mineral rights or long standing conflicts the western world (us) rarely hear about.

From June 24th to early July we spoke about the poaching conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the attack on the Okapi Conservation Project and rangers in the Ituri Forest which took the lives of 6 people and all 14 Okapi housed at the center. Media barely responded to this but our colleagues and members did and reached out in support of the people of the Ituri Forest, funding food supplies and medical aid for those displaced and injured. The attack was a retaliation for breaking up illegal elephant poaching and gold/mineral mining activities. It is not about food and water security, it is about making money by selling these products on the black market to buy better weapons to increase this illegal activity. This is my poorly disguised call for people to recycle their cell phones and pay attention to what we are saying about being a responsible consumer.


Mountain Gorilla, Sabinyo Group, Rwanda

In early April in the eastern sector of the Democratic Republic of Congo North Kivu province (there are two Congos, the other being the Republic of Congo), militia groups moved into an area of the Virunga Mountains, home to potentially 1/3rd of all the worlds 800+ Mountain Gorillas. This is not a new conflict, it is a cycle of fighting; rebels are being pushed back by the Congolese Army and then start fighting all over again. With it comes people fleeing their villages to escpe the conflict, reportedly some 250,000 people. And with all these people moving to protect their families, comes the depletion of natural resources for food and firewood, and the insecurity for wildlife in the park. The ongoing conflict also disrupts tourism, a large part of the park, and the areas financial sustainability as well as offering employment to the local population. For example, for the past two years, park authorities have contributed 30% of their gross revenues to projects in the impoverished surrounding villages from tourism revenue.

Young Mountain Gorilla, Rwanda

And for us, it is about wildlife and people. In Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda we support the work of the Gorilla Doctors. Gorilla Doctors is a veterinary team powered by the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, Inc. and the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center that is dedicated to saving the lives of Central Africa’s endangered mountain and Grauer’s gorillas through health care. Gorilla Doctors treat wild human-habituated gorillas suffering from life-threatening injury and illness, conduct gorilla disease research, and facilitate preventive health care for the people who work in the national parks who come into close contact with the gorillas. The Virunga mountain gorilla population increased by 26.3% between 2003 and 2010: a 2011 study of the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Massif showed that the Gorilla Doctors may be responsible for up to 40% of the growth of the habituated population.

Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project wih orphan. Photo by Molly Feltner/MGVP

It is important to understand that the health of mountain gorillas is inextricably linked to the health of the people with whom they share their forest habitat, as well as the health of the people living in the communities surrounding the parks. Our efforts are focused on the employee health program (EHP) where every mountain gorilla tracker, guide, porter, researcher, and veterinarian in Rwanda and DRC and his wife receives a comprehensive annual health evaluation: a physician’s examination, diagnostic blood work, HIV and TB testing, a vision test, and preventive vaccines. Any worker determined to have a health issue is sent to the local referral hospital for further diagnostics and treatment as necessary.

Children in a field in Musanze, Rwanda at the base of Volcanoes National Park, home to the Mountain Gorilla

It is also important to understand that this is an ongoing conflict, one that is based in not only political conflict but fighting over territories with natural resources that can be used for profit – from timber to gold and coltan. This conflict affects the human communities and the wildlife who live in some of the most diverse areas of the planet. Pressuring governments to make better use of these resources, and making people are aware of the ongoing conflicts, is the only way we can protect wildlife and develop long-term community based solutions for the local human populations. There is a balance to these ecosystems for which both wildlife and local people belong if managed sustainably.

For media reports on the current conflict go to MSNBC, The Guardian, CNN or Boston.com

Search Blog & Website
Subscribe to Houston Zoo News
Get the latest stories and updates from the Zoo in your inbox! Find out how: Houston Zoo News
Houston Zoo Facebook Page