Poaching and civil war have threatened the rare Eastern Lowland gorilla in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Germany's GTZ is trying to protect the few animals remaining – and also help the people of the region.
One of the few silverback gorillas left in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
Zaire’s gorillas were catapulted to international fame by the movie "Gorillas in the Mist", dedicated to the late American zoologist Diane Fossey. The Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Zaire, is home to the rare Eastern Lowland Gorilla.
With a height of up to 180 cm and weight of 200 kg, gorilla gorilla graueri is one of the most impressive of the gorilla family. But through poaching and civil war, the population has shrunk to not more than a couple of hundred animals.
Germany's Society for Technical Co-operation, the GTZ, wants to ensure that these specimens can survive. Its work isn’t easy, though. Carlos Schuler, the local GTZ project manager, says traps continue to be a major threat to the gorillas and other animals in the Park.
A park ranger demonstrating a trap used by poachers.
According to Schuler, the most harmful traps are the big iron ones with teeth (photo). "If an animal gets caught in one of these, it has little chance to get out alive," he told DW-RADIO’s Ludger Schadomsky. "We even had small elephants getting trapped inside. A gorilla would lose its leg or hand, and in most cases, it would die from an infection."
The losses in the gorilla population aren’t quite as dramatic as those of elephants. Still, there are some primate skulls on exhibition at park headquarters. Among them is Mushamuka, who was featured in "Gorillas in the Mist", and Maheshe, who achieved fame nationwide after being featured on the 50 000 Zaire currency note in former president Mobutu Sese Seko’s time. The bank note was even called Maheshe by Zaireans.
A "natural compass"
Thanks to support rendered by the GTZ and the Ted Turner Foundation, Kahuzi’s game wardens are a far cry from Congo’s ragged army. They sport polished boots and clean shirts, embroided with the national park logo, the okapi, an elusive animal endemic to Congo’s rain forests.
DW's Ludger Schadomsky talking to a park ranger.
What is also unusual about the park staff is that there are several pygmy wardens. Pygmies, traditionally hunters and gatherers, know their way around the forest better than any of the Bantu tribes who constitute the majority of Congolese. But it is only now that the knowledge of the original inhabitants of Central Africa’s forests is being recognized – and employed as trackers. A "natural compass" is what Carlos Schuler calls the pygmies.
But despite the new status afforded to Congo’s pygmies, alcohol remains a problem, and so does schooling. Very few pygmies are able to send their children to school. Fees are a mere $1 per term – beyond the reach of most. Yet only education will allow the pygmies to escape the vicious cycle of poverty.
This is where the GTZ steps in. At the Rabeka primary school, just outside the park, the German organization covers the fees for pygmie children to attend. It also helps maintain the school buildings.
Wooden gorillas to raise awareness
Chief warden John spent four years habituating with the gorillas and can communicate with them. With support from the Japanese government, he has established his own gorilla NGO, "Pole pole", which means "slowly, slowly" in the local Swahili language.
"We have many different projects, but the main one is the wood craving," John explains. "As a park employee, I decided to take these jobless people, the former poachers, to do something, because they are talented." So, he trained them how to carve wood.
The figures are not geared for the domestic market, though. There aren’t many Congolese who can afford to pay up to $15 for a wooden gorilla. John thus sells his gorilla souvenirs abroad.
Participants in the program appreciate John and his colleagues’ efforts to save the animals in the park. "It has taken them a long time to realize the potential," says one man. "Now, people are ready to protect the animals and the environment."
Winning the hearts and minds of the local people for animal protection is indeed a slow process. But, a start has been made. Tourists are beginning to come back. They each pay $200 for the visit, money that is used for training and awareness programs. If Carlos is right, it’s not only good for Congo’s gorillas. Ultimately, it’s the people of Congo who stand to benefit.
In light of all the country’s suffering, it may be questionable if animal protection is justified in the face of Congo’s human tragedy. GTZ’s Carlos Schuler is adamant it is. "This is about the people," he says. "If the people are alright, then so are the animals." Now that the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda have signed a peace deal designed to end Africa's biggest war, perhaps environmental issues will take on a new significance.