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Human-Gorilla Conflict During the DRC Civil Wars

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 4399 words Published: 10th May 2021

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Civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has resulted in a decline in eastern mountain gorillas that reside in the Virunga Mountains. During and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which was the beginning of the region's violence for years, an estimated 2 million refugees crossed over Rwanda’s western border into the Congo. The civil war in this nation means large military groups remained in the forest for long periods of time with the gorillas. This leads to an increase in poaching as militia and the refugees become hungry and cold. as 17,000 refugees inhabited the Virunga National park for some time, the gorillas were left to compete for resources with the humans and vice versa. The combination of habitat loss, hunting, and violence is pushing the already endangered species into extinction (African Wildlife Foundation [AWF], n.d.). In this report the Mountain Gorilla-Human conflict within the Democratic Republic of Congo is studied, as well as an ecosystem analysis of the Virunga Mountains and Park, the stakeholders present during this time, intervention strategies, and final recommendations for the local communities surrounding the gorillas within the Virunga National Park. 

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There are two species of gorilla – the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) and western gorilla (G. gorilla). The eastern and western gorilla species are then divided into two subspecies: the eastern species into the eastern lowland gorilla (G. b. graueri) and the mountain gorilla (G. b. beringei), and then the western species into the western lowland gorilla (G. g. gorilla) and the cross-river gorilla (G. g. diehli) (Cawthon, 2005). The mountain gorillas are the specific gorillas focused on in this project. Currently as of 2019 they’re the only population of gorillas that are increasing, but as history shows this was not always the case. The political instability and pressure from rebel groups throughout the area put pressure on Virunga National Park, placing this species in the middle of this social and economic crisis. With war brings risks of disease transmission from humans such as the flu, pneumonia, and even Ebola, uncontrolled contact with humans and waste which leads to behavior change, and even harassment by local people and retaliation killing (Hockings & Humle 2009). 

On the other side, gorillas also cause conflict with humans. Gorillas sometimes leave the parks to raid crops as their resources dwindle away (Gorilla Doctors, 2019). In an interview conducted with Dr. Annette Lanjouw, former director of the International Gorilla Conservation, “to a farmer that only has a little means of financial stability coming from their agriculture, one gorilla stomping through a farm can be life altering.” Gorilla crop-raiding and ranging outside the park pose threats to local communities, such as crop damage and loss, constant anxiety, possible injury and personal danger from wanting to protect their land. this causes many frustrations with gorillas from the community and lack of tolerance for the species leading to retaliation killing. Although these communities currently are supported by tourism in Virunga National Park, they tend to be angry toward the species sometimes (V.B. 2019).

Ecosystem Analysis

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is home to the most diverse abundance of rainforests in all of Africa and is second only to the Amazon Rainforest in size (Butler, 2006). The DRC is home to more than 11,000 species of plants, 450 mammals, 1,150 birds, 300 reptiles, 200 amphibians (Butler, 2006). It also houses two kinds of climate: equatorial heat with no dry season or tropical heat with a dry season (“Climate”, n.d.). The DRC is also home to two subspecies of gorillas: the mountain gorilla (Gorilla Beringei Beringei) of Rwanda, Uganda and Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Grauer's Gorilla (Gorilla Beringei Graueri) (World Wildlife Fund [WWF], n.d.). Human-gorilla conflict is something that has been an issue for many years, especially during the events that took place during the Congo War (1996-2002). Not only did mutualistic resources suffer, so did the ecosystem in certain parts of the DRC due to mining and logging.

 Consequences of the war found its way into protected areas and caused a tremendous amount of damage to the inhabitants and resources of these areas. Traditional human-gorilla conflict might consist of the gorillas wandering out of their protected area for food (crop raiding) or humans might sneak into the protected areas for resources when they weren’t supposed to. A more serious issue is that the fighting and the movement of millions of refugees through forest regions decimated wildlife and took a heavy toll on protected areas (Butler, 2006). “Virunga National Park suffered extensive damage by armed bands of soldiers and refugees from neighboring camps, who harvested some 36 million trees from the park, hunted gorillas and other animals” (Butler, 2006). Other areas suffered from simple resource extraction for either soldiers in need or the overcompensating locals due to lack of food, water and shelter. 

The increase in demand for space and supplies lead to an increase in the frequency of timber harvest and mining. Utilizing the trees seems like a good idea for the humans because forests generally yield a high number of them, but in doing so the gorillas have less space for habitat. The gorillas tend to make nests either on the ground (with moderate tree coverage) or in the trees themselves, so the fewer tree’s would mean less room for them to live and rest (V.B. 2019). On the other hand, timber harvest is one of two main sources of income for the DRC, the other is mining (Butler, 2006). The problem with harvesting timber stems from how sustainable collection methods are and if replanting is part of the process, which in present time it is. Mining took place due to “conflict minerals” such as cobalt, copper, gold and industrial diamonds being readily available and often times during the war, these mining operations would get robbed and extraction sites would be abandoned (“Conflict Minerals”, n.d.). This leaves habitats fragmented and uninhabitable.   

 In recent years, the DRC’s ecosystem has faced similar issues such as poaching, logging and mining. However, in the absence of civil war, the environment is slowly recovering, resources are being utilized more sustainably than before, and holds 13% of the world's hydroelectric potential (Butler, 2006). “Infrastructure investments could rapidly drive new development, which has been stymied over the past 30 years by impassable roads, failing electricity grids, and crumbling transportation systems.” (Butler, 2006) Increased urbanization, human population and burning land for agricultural purposes seems to be a continuing trend and serve as the DRC’s most concerning dilemma. Looking forward, the DRC’s ecosystem has the potential to continue thriving as long as resources are harvested sustainably and populations are sustainable in regards to both humans and gorillas.


Poachers were a great threat to the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The large population of mountain gorillas living within the area was a sufficient source of income for those who resorted to this type of illegal activity. Guards in national parks were disarmed by militants so they could not protect the mountain gorillas (Vogel 2000). This offered poachers easy access into the parks and also meant that there were not many consequences for their actions. A study found that during the war the sale of protected species as meat in local markets increased by almost twenty five percent (Nackoney et al., 2014). Food was an item of high demand locally and the gorilla meat was found to feed a lot of people. It was very beneficial at the time. The poachers would sell the mountain gorilla or its meat to people to feed groups such as refugees and local militia troops too (Nackoney et al., 2014). A resolution that poachers desire is prosperity in the local area. They would not have to resort to killing and capturing animals if they had another source of income. This is a realistic approach, but a very challenging thing to achieve during war time. In regards to war time poaching, poachers would benefit from the war continuing.             

African Soldiers are also another stakeholder in this conflict. The soldiers play a large role in the consumption of gorilla meat and in the increase in encounters between humans and gorillas. As the presence of soldiers in local villages became common, conflicts in these villages became an avid thing. According to De Merode and Cowlishaw (2006), soldiers often harassed the local people which resulted in them fleeing deeper into the jungle to get away from them. They also began to form their own network of poaching and killing the animals themselves. They then convinced some of the local people to carry the gorilla out of the forest for a minimal fee (De Merode & Cowlishaw 2006). Capturing most of the market profits because of their authoritative power, the soldiers made a lot of money controlling the trade. The soldiers did not care much about the gorillas and their desired resolution would be too keep doing what they were doing. Some soldiers made ten times what regular poachers made because they cornered the market (De Merode & Cowlishaw 2006).

National Park management and National Park Rangers/Guards were stripped of their duties due to the conflict. Soldiers and militants who entered the parks in the area took the rangers and guards weapons away from them in early 1999 (Kasereka, Muhigwa, Shalukoma, & Kahekwa, 2006). A large amount of the gorilla population was massacred following the disarmament. Most park rangers who were able to keep their occupation became very corrupt. Since they did not have artillery to protect themselves and the gorillas from poachers, the parks became easy to enter and the gorillas became much more vulnerable. A desired resolution that the Rangers and guards would have supported is being re-armed and integrating further security measures in order to protect the gorillas. What actually happened was that the national park ended up hiring former poachers to work as rangers along with becoming re-armed (Kasereka, Kahekwa 2006).  Since the re arming of the guards and rangers in 2000 no gorillas have been killed in the tourism sector to poaching (Kasereka, et al. 2006).

Those who work in the conservation field had limited access to the area during the civil wars. Without access to the land that the gorillas live on it was hard for them to figure out how much of the gorilla population had been affected. Unable to study the mountain gorillas, conservationists had to come up with more advanced ways to evaluate the loss of wildlife during the time. With no conservationists in the parks, habituated mountain gorillas were more susceptible to poaching because they were not bothered by humans (Kasereka, et al. 2006). According to Nackoney et al. (2014), satellite images were an effective way to find out the extent of environmental degradation, and how many refugee camps are in the area during the war. These methods were important in finding out how the gorillas that are left used the land and where they may be and how human interaction with their environment changed the landscape (Nackoney et al., 2014). The conservation workers desired resolution would be for the political unrest to cease and that all government in the area focus on gathering funding to reverse the gorillas future existence. Urgent measures, like supervision and tagging, were needed to be taken to ensure that the mountain gorilla population in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was not threatened (Yamagiwa 2003).

Local people surrounding the densely vegetated forest were highly affected by the conflict that occurred. Often villages of people would be forced out of their communities. Some would travel deep into the forest to get away from the dangers of the war (De Merode & Cowlishaw 2006). Many would set up temporary camps that would lead to small scale clearings that further degraded the forest. Being deeper in the “bush” as they call it, there were more possibilities that a human would encounter a gorilla. According to Nackoney et al. (2014), local people relied heavily on the bushmeat that they could get in these areas. Transportation systems were decimated so there were no ways for outside communities to get to markets. It was not uncommon for them to use the mountain gorillas a source of income too. Some became poachers and traffickers in order to support their families during the tough times. These illegal activities become prevalent during times of increased poverty and disruption of normal markets (Nackoney et al., 2014). The local people’s desired resolution would be that the armed militants in the area leave, so that they can return to normal life and leave the gorillas alone in their home. Having to rely on mountain gorillas for their meat and monetary value was not something that they had desired to do, but it was something that they needed to do to live.

Intervention Efficacy

There are numerous intervention tactics aimed at reducing the human-gorilla conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo both during wartime and afterwards.  During the wars, the conflicts mainly arose from militias and refugees encroaching on the forests that gorillas call home and competing with each other for resources. As previously stated, many different groups have been affected by the conflict in the DRC, causing various foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) to take action. A wide range of strategies have been implemented aimed at reducing the amount of conflicts occurring between the mountain gorillas and people.

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 Poaching gorillas for desperate troops escalated after military leaders disarmed guards in the national parks, the only safe haven left for local gorillas. The first intervention strategy this paper will examine was initiated during wartime and consisted of rearming the Kahuzi-Biega National Park guards, even though the government ceased funding for the park at the beginning of the war (Vogel, 2000). Conservation groups, along with a German development agency, started to work with rebels to manage and fund the park during early 2000. Protected areas are crucial for gorilla survival in the DRC, thus another intervention strategy involving expansive surveillance developed within the park. Surveillance deters poachers due to the threat of arrest and allowing park rangers to locate traps in the forest and dismantle them (Kasereka et al. 2006). However, according to Vogel (2000), many poaching conflicts occur outside park boundaries which are harder to monitor and control.

 The DRC wars not only caused four million human deaths, but also lead to a continuous economic crisis in the area (AWF, n.d.). Consequently, gorillas are an important source of profit for local communities as they depend on wildlife-based tourism for welfare. Recently, tourism lodges were built along the foothills of the Virunga Mountains which generate substantial income for the community and proved successful in 2016 when park fees produced $16.4 million to help steady the economic crisis (AWF, n.d.). The AWF commenced large-scale gorilla conservation by buying land adjacent to Volcanoes National Park and donating it to the Rwandan government, which resulted in a 26.3 percent increase in gorilla populations across boundaries, including the DRC area (AWF, n.d.). Additionally, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) has recently proposed transboundary collaboration approaches to help both gorilla populations and local communities who benefit from environmental services provided by Virunga National Park (Hammill & Crawford, 2008).

 When Virunga National Park was designated in 1925, The Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) was also formed with a goal to maintain conservation of the protected areas (World Wildlife Fund [WWF], 2008). However, due to the historical conflict in the DRC, the ICCN lacks the finances and resources to continue conservation management without the support from NGOs and donors (Hammill & Crawford, 2008). The World Wildlife Fund is one NGO that supplies the ICCN with the equipment to alleviate some human and wildlife conflicts (WWF, 2008). Over 145,000 people in the DRC were displaced and live in temporary sites just outside of the Virunga National Park. With the help of WWF and the United Nations, firewood from sustainable sources is provided to the displaced people to reduce the use of resources from the Virunga’s forests (WWF, 2008). In 1987, Virunga Environmental Program (PEVi) was established to allow the ecosystem and wildlife inside the park to grow by helping local communities find alternative wood sources from outside the park. This intervention strategy will help preserve the protected area where gorillas thrive while providing environmentally-friendly services that are more cost-effective for the community (WWF, 2008).

 Before Virunga National Park, the gorillas' natural habitat, was taken over by the rebels from governmental control, soldiers and militiamen poached gorillas for meat and destroyed their habitat for charcoal (Sanders, 2008). Conservation plans and efforts were developed by conservation groups and the United Nations in 2008 and 2009, including dispatching 41 more park rangers and reestablishing five 24-hour surveillance sites (Sanders, 2008). The constant surveillance allowed rangers to target poachers for arrest and identify their traps and dismantle them (Sanders, 2008). In addition, around 42 former poachers were employed as Kahuzi-Biega National Park workers which reduced the number of active poachers in the area and gave insight into the perspectives and methods of local poaching groups (Kasereka et al. 2006).

 Establishing protected areas and designing specific management plans during the DRC conflicts were also popular strategies to reduce resource competition between humans and gorillas. The most notable protected area in the region is the Virunga National Park, which contributes to the transboundary habitat for mountain gorillas that alternate between the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda (Hammill & Crawford, 2008). The park not only protects biodiversity within the ecosystem, but it also provided environmental services to local communities during times of conflict; including supplying water and conserving soil (Hammill & Crawford, 2008). However, other reserves that were established in an attempt to aid both human and gorilla populations were not as successful at the time. The Luo Scientific Reserve included a management plan that allowed human settlements within its boundary, as long as they abided by strict land use policies (Nackoney et al., 2014). The communities were not allowed to create new agriculture land but were allowed to hunt animals, other than primates, using traditional means (Nackoney et al., 2014). This intervention strategy was not successful in regard to gorilla conservation because large tracts of mature land are essential to primate survival, thus the anthropogenic pressure drove groups of gorillas out of the area (Nackoney et al., 2014).

Final Recommendations

Overall the civil war within the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the world's most neglected crisis’, but even with the decades of war getting more attention currently, what many people still do not consider is the species trapped in the middle. After reviewing the intervention strategies that were utilized, the best solution would be to enforce the existing best practice guidelines and to provide adequate staff and essential resources (Hockings & Humle 2009). Training programs for anti-poachers would be ideal, as well as programs that help poachers become park rangers. As this species is only increasing in population due to conservation efforts, the mountain gorilla should remain a conservation-dependent species until the species is stable (Hickey, J.R. et. al 2018).

National Parks could also be advised to establish a buffer zone that ranges 350-500 meters outside of the park, which is the observed range a gorilla ventures outside the park and beneficial to the species seeing as disease and deforestation are the top causes of their decreasing population (Hammill & Crawford, 2008). This intervention technique was used in Uganda and initiated by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP). In conjunction with Uganda Wildlife Authority, IGCP bought adjacent lands from the existing landholders to reduce human-gorilla interactions (Hammill & Crawford, 2008). This strategy could also be implemented in the DRC, especially since the two countries share similar characteristics and conflicts with primates.

After being asked what local communities should be doing to help recover after the war, Dr. Lanjouw said she would suggest the citizens of the local community take on bigger parts in the tourism that helps the park be so successful. She stated that tourism companies and the government receive the majority of the funds, but the local communities who were giving their time and effort into the business do not see the appropriate funds coming back to their community which would help them see the gorillas more positively. As this is a unique situation that cannot be compared to any other situations happening in the world, Dr.. Lanjow says public awareness should be emphasized in the healing of this nation and education needs to be implemented about the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as it is not well aware of by the world.



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