They are the latest victims of the chaos in Congo: nine mountain gorillas slaughtered in an apparently motiveless crime. Now the UN is trying to uncover the truth behind the massacre. Michael McCarthy and David Lewis report
Here it comes again, in an acute form, one of the most agonising questions for anyone who cares about the natural world: can Africa's wonderful wildlife ever be effectively protected?
It is being thrown into sharp relief by the killing this year, in four separate incidents, of nine mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Mountain gorillas are among the world's rarest animals; there are only about 700 left, in two populations, one in the Virunga region, and one in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.
But they're not only very rare, they're very special. Although all creatures surely have equal worth, it remains the case that some appeal to us more than others - the ones that serious zoologists sometimes lump together and label, with a sarcastic suggestion of the celebrity culture invading even natural history, charismatic megafauna. Tigers, giant pandas, golden eagles, dolphins, orchids - you couldn't really argue that most of us aren't drawn to them more than we are to rats and goldfish, spiders and lichens. And in that megafauna list, few creatures have more charismatic appeal than Gorilla berengei berengei.
It is nearly 30 years since the largest of all the great apes burst onto our consciousness, in the close encounters with David Attenborough, filmed for the twelfth episode of his seriesLife On Earth. In those magical 1978 meetings, when Attenborough patiently sat and waited for the Virunga animals to get used to him, and then actually played with them, we saw at first-hand what magnificent creatures they were - especially the huge, older males, known as silverbacks for the grizzled coat they develop. And we also saw the surprising truth about this beast which had been demonised as a skyscraper-toppling monster in King Kong: it is the gentlest of all the apes.
Five years later the American primatologist Dian Fossey published her own remarkable account of life with the Virunga animals,Gorillas in the Mist, which gave them a romantic, almost mythical status, enhanced by Fossey's own murder as she worked to protect them, in 1985.
Ever since, they have been among the world's most cherished animals - at least in the rich west. Yet they live at the heart of a region which exemplifies all that is increasingly tragic about Africa, in human terms, for the last three decades: the combination of poverty, unsustainable development, and war.
The Virunga region, the forested slopes of a range of extinct volcanoes, actually stretches over three countries: Rwanda and Uganda, as well as the DRC. All are very poor; all have been ravaged by conflict. Rwanda saw the genocidal war between Hutus and Tutsis in 1994; earlier, Uganda saw thousands die under the dictatorial regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. But it is the DRC, one of Africa's biggest (and potentially richest) countries, which has suffered on the widest basis.
In 1998 the regime of President Laurent Kabila was challenged by rebels backed by both Rwanda and Uganda; Kabila in turn brought in troops from Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. It was one of Africa's worst civil wars. Though it was officially brought to an end by Kabila's son Joseph, after his assassination, various rebel bands roamed at will, with Virunga one of the worst affected regions. When the people are desperately poor and civil order is in tatters, where is the funding for conservation? Where is the priority?
The Congolese have tried to make a fist of it, in spite of all the difficulties, through the Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), the DRC's wildlife and protected areas authority. But the cost has been huge. In the last 10 years, no fewer than 120 rangers from the Virunga National park have been killed by rebels and poachers. Yet despite all this - or perhaps because of the heroic effort these fatalities represent - Virunga's mountain gorillas have been doing well, and the population has increased from 330 to about 380. Which is why the recent killings have been do disturbing.
In January, two lone males were shot in separate incidents, it is thought by militiamen loyal to a rebel warlord, General Laurent Nkunda. In June, an adult female was shot in another incident, but her baby was saved and taken into care. The most distressing incident of all occurred in late July, when four members of a well-known, 12-strong gorilla band in the Mikeno sector were found executed - there doesn't really seem any other word for it.
They included the silverback and leader of the group, named by the rangers Rugendo, and three females: Neeza, Mburanumwe, who was pregnant, and Safari, whose baby Ndeze was brought to the town of Goma to be cared for by vets. (Another female gorilla and her baby are missing). The pictures of the group of four slaughtered animals, which went round the world, were wretched in the extreme.
Although there is a growing African trade in "bushmeat", (the hunting of forest animals, including primates, for human consumption) the gorillas' potentially valuable carcasses had been left lying where they were shot. Nor were they shot for trophies: the bodies had been burnt and slashed with machetes.
"It seems the people who did this were making a point," said Dr Noelle Kumpel, Bushmeats and Forests Conservation Programme Manager for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which is one of the western groups actively trying to help with gorilla conservation. "There are a lot of problems within the park, a lot of people living and trying to work inside the park." The main suspect at the moment is the local charcoal industry. Illegal charcoal traders have been cutting down trees in the gorillas' habitat and see the national park as a direct rival. It is an industry thought to be worth about 30 million dollars a year, as charcoal is in heavy demand in the mushrooming town of Goma - a village 10 years ago, now with a population of 400,000 - and also in neighbouring Rwanda, where there are heavy demands for charcoal but there are stict laws on producing it.
"There is a lot of pressure on the park to fuel the charcoal industry," said Samantha Newport, a spokeswoman for WildlifeDirect, a group supporting conservationists in Africa working in dangerous situations. "The killings are being interpreted as an attack on the park itself. There is no reason to suspect it is anything but sabotage. It is a way to exert pressure on the park to try and ensure it doesn't exist."
Two major responses to the killings have been made by conservationists. The first is a three-month emergency action plan, which includes round-the-clock monitoring for the six remaining gorilla families in the Mikeno sector. Teams of park rangers are working in relay to ensure that the remaining families are protected from attacks 24 hours a day. Furthermore, there will be increased patrols of critical areas by 30 guards mobilised from other parts of the park, and a census of the remaining gorillas by the endof August, to ensure an accurate, up-to-date understanding of the current situation.
The second has been a formal investigation into the killings by Unesco, the United Nations cultural organisation, which maintains the list of World Heritage Sites, of which the Virunga National Park was one of the first to be declared, in 1978.
A team including representatives from Unesco, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the United Nations Environment Programme and the DRC's conservation body, the ICCN, have spent the last week trying to find out the truth about the massacre of the Rugendo band. The leader of the team, Yvette Kaboza, gets back to Unesco's Paris headquarters today and the report should be ready within 10 days.
It is hoped that its conclusions will feed into the emergency protection plan. But the scheme, which has been put together by the five main western-based conservation groups supporting the gorillas, including the ZSL, only has funds for three months and more money is urgently required.
The protection is a tough task. "Each month we go out for 10 days and monitor the families. This is very dangerous - there are armed groups in the park," said Innocent Mburanumwe, a ranger in charge of monitoring the gorilla families in the park's southern sector. "We face all sorts of problems, from the armed groups and the charcoal traders to the corruption. But if we risk death, we will fight to protect nature and the gorillas from being wiped out. It is our job."
"It's an example of the difficulties that face conservation in so many parts of Africa," said the ZSL's Dr Kumpel. And that determination to try, against such great odds, gives hope that conservation may succeed.
But it isn't all a hopeful picture. At the weekend, the missing female from Rugendo's band was found - and she too, had been killed, and her baby must be presumed dead along with her.
The Zoological Society of London is appealing for funds to maintain the emergency gorilla protection programme in Virunga beyond its three-month initial phase. Donations to the fund can be made by sending cheques payable to the Zoological Society of London to Dr Noelle Kumpel, Bushmeat and Forests Conservation Programme, Outer Circle, Regent's Park, London, NW1 4RY. Donations can also be made via the ZSL website: www.zsl.org