Gorillas in Their Midst

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, community-led conservation has emerged from the chaos of war, but the ghosts of colonialism still haunt locals trying to live with great apes.

John Kahekwa vividly remembers the first time he saw a gorilla.

It was October 1983, the start of the rainy season. Kahekwa was 20 years old. He had just finished six months of paramilitary training to become a park ranger, and started work at Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the tangled Congo rainforest rises into the montane jungle of the Albertine Rift. 

Kahekwa had followed a tracker and another ranger off a dirt road and into a bamboo thicket. His job was to translate the lead ranger’s instructions from French and Swahili into English for tourists from around the globe who had come to the park to glimpse the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), a subspecies endemic to the eastern DRC. The group walked through dense underbrush that, in places, rose higher than their shoulders. The tracker and lead ranger hacked a path forward with machetes. Then they stopped to listen: silence punctuated by leaves rustling and branches snapping. Something large moved up ahead. The ranger relayed a message to Kahekwa, who translated for the tourists: The gorillas were near.

“Get ready your cameras; don’t run away,” Kahekwa said, hiding his own excitement. The tracker slashed at the bush, opening a window into a clearing. There, just feet away, was Maheshi, the silverback, the gorilla family’s male leader.

“Oh, my first sight! A huge, huge, so big, silverback! Unbelievable! I sweated. My heart was shaking,” Kahekwa told me later.

Eastern lowland gorillas, also known as Grauer’s gorillas, are the world’s largest living primates. Silverbacks can weigh more than 500 pounds and stand over six feet tall, with stocky bodies, deeply arched backs, and long, muscular arms. Eastern lowland gorilla families typically have only one silverback and multiple females. This family’s alpha female, weighing around half what a silverback does, sat next to Maheshi. There were a dozen other females and babies further on. Most slept, some groomed each other, some grunted, deep and rumbling. 

Kahekwa was mesmerized; he and the tourists watched for hours. “I said, ‘This is my kingdom now!’”

During Kahekwa’s 23-year ranger career, he would log thousands more sightings and guide hundreds of tourists—among them Bill Gates and Al Gore—to see the gorillas. With tips he earned from tourists, Kahekwa purchased books, pencils, and a kerosene lamp so that he could write down every interaction and observation each night after his shift. He learned how to tell gorillas apart by their characteristic behaviors and the unique wrinkle patterns above their nostrils, called nose prints. He named the gorillas—Lambchop and Cimanuka and Pole Pole (pronounced polay polay, meaning “slowly slowly” in Swahili)—and mapped out their genealogies.

But something was amiss. Kahekwa noticed that many gorillas lacked fingers or hands. One September morning in 1992, he found out why: He found a three-month-old male named Chi (“tea” in Swahili) dangling from a tree, his right hand caught in a snare and his family in a frenzy around him. “The father was suffering, the mother was suffering, I was suffering,” Kahekwa recalled. Kahekwa eventually witnessed more than two dozen gorillas caught in hunting snares that locals had set to capture antelope and bush hogs for meat. In all, five gorillas died—a meaningful number, given that the latest estimate suggests only a few thousand eastern lowland gorillas remain in the wild, most within Kahuzi-Biega National Park. 

The 1.5-million-acre preserve was established in 1970 by the Belgian conservationist Adrien Deschryver, Kahekwa’s uncle by marriage, to protect eastern lowland gorillas and the mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) that live at higher elevations on the park’s extinct volcanic slopes and in surrounding mountain ranges that straddle the DRC-Rwanda border. During the park’s creation, the Congolese government evicted several hundred Indigenous people—mostly Batwa, an ethnic group thought to be one of the earliest inhabitants of central Africa—and passed laws forbidding anyone from living or hunting within the park’s borders. At the time, officials thought these measures were necessary to protect not only gorillas, but the other 13o or so mammal species that live in the park, including chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), and forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus).

Yet as Kahekwa later learned, the park struggled to adequately protect wildlife because it failed to account for the wellbeing of the people it had exiled and those living in nearby communities. Around Kahuzi-Biega, extreme poverty, unemployment, and malnutrition forced many people to rely on resources inside the park, pitting human survival against wildlife conservation. The forest within Kahuzi-Biega was a lifeline, one of the only sources of food, building materials, traditional medicine, and income. Without alternatives, local people continued to illegally lay down snares, cut trees, harvest food, and dig up gold and other minerals.

“At that time conservation wasn’t able to mobilize local communities,” Kahekwa explained. “Conservation was a dictator.” 

This pattern has played out globally. Since 1872, when then-U.S. President Ulysses Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act and established the world’s first official national park, more than 4,000 nature reserves and parks around the world have been created to protect nature and biodiversity, including more than 10 in the DRC. Research suggests that many—though not all—have helped conserve critical habitat for wildlife. Yet human rights activists increasingly point out that they have done so at great cost. Many protected areas are predicated on the idea that “pristine” wilderness does not include the Indigenous people who safeguarded or co-existed with wildlife for millennia. And once Indigenous communities are evicted, other abuses frequently follow. In some instances, human rights organizations have accused rangers—including those in the DRC—of torture, mass rape, and extrajudicial killings. Human rights groups often refer to the national park model as “fortress” or “colonial” conservation. 

“At that time conservation wasn’t able to mobilize local communities. Conservation was a dictator.”

— John Kahekwa, Pole Pole Foundation

“There is a very violent history to these parks,” said Maud Salber, senior project coordinator of Conservation and Human Rights at the nonprofit Rainforest Foundation UK. “Nowadays conservation organizations are trying to distance themselves from this, rightly so, but the truth is, it’s still deeply ingrained, this idea that you need to separate people from nature to keep it pristine for the benefit of foreign tourists.”

In recent years, government agencies and major national park supporters have begun to question the long-held approach of fortress conservation and have taken the first steps toward replacing it with other approaches that more effectively address human and wildlife needs. But as Kahekwa learned, untangling the knot between conservation and colonialism in Kahuzi-Biega continues to be complicated by war, violence, poverty, and the difficult human relationships underlying one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems.

The Congo Basin is the world’s second largest rainforest, spanning six African countries and 500 million acres. Researchers estimate that the basin provides food, water, and shelter to as many as 75 million people, as well as some 1,000 bird species, 400 mammal species, and 10,000 species of tropical plants, 30 percent of which are endemic. The Congo rainforest is nicknamed the “lungs of Africa,” because each year it absorbs more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide—some 4 percent of global emissions—and helps regulate rainfall and temperature across the continent. Its importance, in other words, stretches beyond the human and wild communities within its immediate vicinity. But its protection necessarily begins with them.

More than 60 percent of Congolese people live below the international poverty line, earning less than $2.15 per day. The Ministry of Labor and United Nations estimates that more than 50 percent of the country’s population is underemployed. Across the country, more than 40 percent of children are malnourished. That rate rises to more than 65 percent in South Kivu Province, where Kahuzi-Biega National Park is located.

In the DRC, most people earn a living by making use of the country’s natural resources—through agriculture, fishing, hunting, or mining. But around Kahuzi-Biega, access to natural resources is largely blocked by the national park boundary. With few alternatives and virtually no social assistance from the Congolese government, locals do what they must to survive. Each year, Global Forest Watch estimates that people cut down about 1.2 million acres of forest in the DRC, primarily to make way for farmland. In Kahuzi-Biega alone, local people razed nearly 2,500 acres of forest between 2019 and 2021, according to park staff.

In some ways, the economic desperation that forces people to rely on resources from protected lands can be traced to the country’s violent colonial past. Through the late 19th and much of the 20th century, Belgium controlled the DRC and exploited it for cheap labor and natural resources. When the DRC gained independence in 1960, the inequality, environmental destruction, and dissolution of ethnic boundaries that had occurred under Belgian rule had lasting effects. The DRC descended into crisis as several political groups vied for power. Civilian rebellions, military mutinies, coups, and economic upheaval—often encouraged by foreign powers—plagued the country.

It was against this backdrop that Kahekwa tried to convince locals to help him protect eastern lowland gorillas. After seeing Chi injured, he drew from his small personal savings and hired informants from nearby villages to find out who was hunting in Kahuzi-Biega. When the park’s anti-poaching teams arrested people for hunting, mining, or harvesting honey or timber, Kahekwa visited them in makeshift jail cells at the park’s headquarters. He recognized many of the men and women from his home village, Miti (“tree” in Swahili), which lies on the park’s southeastern border. Kahekwa asked why they were destroying the park’s forest and threatening the gorillas. The answer was always a variation of the same proverb: “Empty stomachs have no ears.”

In 1992, while still working as a park ranger, Kahekwa founded a grassroots conservation organization called the Pole Pole Foundation to fill the gap between residents’ needs and the forest’s supply. He bought tree seeds and saplings, and with the help of a few locals, etched out space in Miti for tree nurseries, where villagers could cut trees to supply some of their firewood and lumber needs. When he asked locals to carve gorilla statues out of wood to sell to tourists, he was shocked that most didn’t know what a gorilla looked like. 

“I said, ‘Guys, have you ever seen any gorillas?’ They said, ‘Us? How can we see the gorillas? Who are we?’” Kahekwa recalled. He invited 16 people from Miti to visit the park, paid their $20 entrance fees—an exorbitant sum in such an impoverished area—and took them to see gorillas. 

It was the first of what would become the Pole Pole Foundation’s community tourism program. “When they saw the gorillas, I remember one of them said, ‘Ah! Look at this one! This one has no right hand!’” Kahekwa recalled. He explained how gorillas sometimes got caught in the snares meant for other animals. “I saw the deep shock they had in their heart. These people are harming the gorillas because they didn’t know,” Kahekwa told me. 

Kahekwa intended to expand his community outreach to other villages, but in 1996, Ugandan and Rwandan armies invaded eastern DRC in search of Hutu militants who had perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The invasion sparked the First Congo War, which was followed about a year later with a second invasion and the Second Congo War.

Still, amid the turmoil, Kahekwa slowly built the Pole Pole Foundation. In 1999, it constructed a school in Miti and developed a traditional curriculum with a focus on conservation. It taught children and adults about the park, the Congo rainforest, and how to grow their own food to reduce their need to hunt for meat in the protected area. But the reach of even these efforts was limited by the ongoing conflict: For more than five years, eastern DRC was engulfed in battles. Kahuzi-Biega and other national parks nearby fell entirely within the war zone, and refugees, internally displaced people, rebel fighters, and soldiers flooded the rainforest. Civilians and armed groups cleared land for homes, farmland, military bases, and gold and cobalt mines. Illegal hunting and ivory trading flourished. Conservation became nearly impossible.

A UNESCO report published in 2000 found that staff could only access 5 to 10 percent of the total area of the park during the wars. That made collecting data on wildlife difficult, but anecdotally, the populations of several species seem to have crashed. Kahekwa and his team, who were among the few people who worked in the park during the wars, collected the skeletons of hundreds of chimpanzees, bush elephants, and gorillas—including Chi, Ninja, and Masassi—killed by poachers. Ironically, the gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega were particularly easy targets because Kahekwa had helped habituate the animals to people. Although gorillas are primarily vegetarians, silverbacks can be lethally aggressive if they or their families are threatened, so Kahekwa and other rangers had worked to get the park’s gorillas used to people by spending months with them, mimicking their behaviors and standing their ground when a silverback charged them. During the wars, this meant the gorillas did not flee when armed groups hunted them.

By 2003 when the Second Congo War officially ended, more than 5 million people had been killed. Eastern lowland gorillas had also died in droves. Although ongoing political instability and armed conflict have made population surveys challenging, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and other organizations estimated in 2015 that the population of gorillas in the eastern DRC had declined  77 percent since 1998, from 16,900 to just 3,800. The chimpanzee population also declined by an estimated 20 percent, and the bush elephant population by nearly 50 percent. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature designated the eastern lowland gorilla a critically endangered species, making it the fourth of six great apes to be one step away from extinction.

Today, although the Congolese government has retaken control of large swaths of Kahuzi-Biega, another form of violence has emerged: Park rangers and the Congolese military have been accused of a slew of human right abuses in Kahuzi-Biega and across the country, all in the name of conservation.

In April 2022, the London-based non-governmental organization Minority Rights Group International, or MRG, published findings from a nine-month investigation of human rights abuses against Batwa people living in and around Kahuzi-Biega. Since they were evicted in 1970, Batwa communities have suffered from disproportionate poverty, discrimination, and marginalization with little or no government support. In 2018, several Batwa groups started clearing bits of forest and building small villages on what they deemed their ancestral land within the national park. In response, park rangers and the Armed Forces of the DRC mounted three operations between July 2019 and December 2021 to again evict these communities.  Robert Flummerfelt, a journalist who led the MRG investigation, reported that the rangers and Congolese military personnel burned down villages, shot and killed at least 20 civilians, and raped more than a dozen women at gunpoint.

The Institute for Nature Conservation, a Congolese government partner agency that helps manage the park, launched its own investigation and was largely “unable to corroborate” that such abuses had occurred, though MRG and other critics find this unsurprising given the Institute’s conflict of interest. The Institute for Nature Conservation didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment but have admitted that park rangers and the military conducted operations targeting civilians and that one Indigenous woman was killed. And in 2020, a Congolese military court separately found five park rangers working at Salonga National Park guilty of murder, rape, and torture. Salonga is also co-managed by the Institute for Nature Conservation.

Lara Dominguez, a strategic litigation officer with MRG, notes that park rangers and managers, government agencies, and international donors typically deny allegations of similar atrocities in parks around the world, from Nepal to Cameroon to South America. “It’s one of the reasons that MRG commissioned an in-depth investigation that would carefully and systematically document what had been happening so that it would be almost impossible to just say it’s not happening flat out,” Dominguez explained.

Despite this, Kahekwa categorically and angrily denies that the atrocities took place. Although he officially left his park ranger job in 2005 to focus on the Pole Pole Foundation, he continues to visit the park frequently and has trained many of its rangers. “We are all one family here,” he said, in response to the MRG report. “No ranger has ever raped a Pygmy woman.” Further, some of the park rangers and park employees themselves are Batwa, blurring the boundaries between ethnic conflicts, human rights, and conservation even more. Kahekwa—with one foot firmly rooted in the fortress conservation model and another in supporting local communities—finds himself caught between all of them. He supports the notion that law enforcement is necessary to protect gorillas, and points to the devastation of the war years as evidence that people and gorillas cannot co-exist. At the same time, he recognizes that more must be done to address the needs of local communities.

“There will never be a fair conservation [if] the communities are put aside,” he said. “Arresting people, dropping them in jail, forcing them to pay fines: That is policeman conservation. Community conservation is, ‘let’s conserve all together.’”

Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, a group of about 20 women, many of whom were previously arrested for poaching timber or animals in the forest, gather at the secondary school that Pole Pole built in Miti, which now serves as the foundation’s headquarters. On a June day in 2022, some shaped a mash of clay and locally grown cork into round “ecological charcoals” meant to replace firewood. Others pieced together clay and metal stoves, knitted rugs, sewed oven mitts and clothes, or stirred batches of soap to sell at local markets. At one end of the courtyard, on the porch of what Kahekwa hoped would one day be the library, some women repaid microloans they had received from the foundation. Since 2020, when the microloan program began, 130 women have received sums of up to $100 and have successfully started small businesses—cultivating beans or selling food and sundries.

Merciline, 60, is one of the foundation’s beneficiaries. Since childhood, Merciline and her family had hunted, collected medicinal plants, and harvested honey from the forest near Miti. After much of it became a national park, her family continued to rely on it. “I knew it was bad to enter illegally to the park, but I didn’t have [a] choice,” Merciline said, speaking in Swahili as Kahekwa’s son, Eddy, translated. “Otherwise, I would die.” In 2015, Merciline recalled, she and her husband were collecting honey in the park. Around mid-day, she sat down to rest and prepare a lunch of cassava roots. Park rangers surrounded her. “One of the rangers said, ‘Oh, look at this woman, let us shoot her, just kill her!’ Another said, ‘No, let’s just punish her,’” Merciline recounted. The rangers pinned her down and beat her: 12 lashes with a wooden stick. Then they let her go, with a warning to never return. 

A week after this first encounter with the park rangers, Merciline returned to the park to harvest more honey. “While they were beating me, I swore I would not return, but once outside of the park, I [felt] hungry again and didn’t know what to do. I went back,” she explained. Once again, the rangers caught her, beat her, and threatened to send her to jail in Kinshasa, DRC’s capital located about 2,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the west. She might have taken her chances, except that a few months later, Kahekwa invited her to one of the Pole Pole Foundation’s community tourism events. For the first time in her life, Merciline saw gorillas.

“I had thought the park belonged to people overseas and wealthy people,” Merciline said. After her visit, she joined the foundation’s women’s group and learned to make rugs, handicrafts, and homebrewed beer. From that, she earns nearly $25 per month. Although her income still falls below the international poverty line, she feels fortunate. She doesn’t have to risk going into the park, and she can support herself and help send her 12 children and grandchildren to school. 

Other efforts to provide alternate sources of income and food for local and Indigenous communities around the park have also emerged, says Marie Bwami, the regional coordinator for The Coalition of Women Leaders for the Environment and Sustainable Development. Bwami’s organization trains Batwa people in agriculture, beekeeping, and cuniculture (raising rabbits as livestock), and also maintains wild tree nurseries and medicinal plant gardens to lighten human pressure on the rainforest. Other organizations focus on purchasing land outside the park for Batwa people or securing citizenship rights for the many Indigenous communities who lack the necessary documents and state-issued identity cards. And in other parts of the DRC, a more comprehensive community-based conservation strategy is taking root. Since 2017, the Congolese government has formally granted ownership of nearly 5 million acres of rainforest from Salonga National Park on the country’s western border to local and Indigenous communities to manage and protect.

Early evidence suggests this approach is working. Rainforest Foundation UK reported that in 2019, the deforestation rate in plots of land granted to these communities was 23 percent lower than the national average. 

So far, though, no one has attempted to replicate Indigenous-led conservation in Kahuzi-Biega. In April 2022, the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered in New York City, became a co-manager of Kahuzi-Biega and promised to implement changes, including strengthening mechanisms for reporting and investigating human rights allegations. A Wildlife Conservation Society spokesperson did not respond to requests to detail how the organization was implementing such changes. But according to Dominguez, so far, little has changed. Batwa communities continue to assert their right to live in the park, and rangers still carry out attacks and evictions at gunpoint.

One cool and sunny morning in June 2022, a handful of men and women from Miti arrived at the Kahuzi-Biega visitor center. Near the entrance was a worn wooden table stacked with animal skeletons, most poached during the first and second Congo wars. There were thin antelope skulls with curved, grey-brown horns, and an elephant limb some three feet long and nearly a foot wide. In the center were three gorilla skulls with large, deep-set eye sockets, hollowed noses, and long snouts.

Kahekwa had revived the Pole Pole Foundation’s community tourism initiative in 2017, and I’d joined the latest batch of local people he’d brought to see park wildlife. He instructed the young men and women to hold the bones. Then he explained the devastating impact of the wars and ongoing hunting and deforestation on the creatures whose bones the visitors now cradled in their hands.

When he was finished, the group gently replaced the remains, and we packed into a white Toyota Land Cruiser. A concussively bumpy 10-minute drive down a dirt road pocked with potholes brought us to a trailhead. The lead ranger, whom Kahekwa trained years ago during his tenure at the park, explained that we would hike to see one of a dozen or so gorilla families living in the park. This family had three females and four babies, including twins, and was led by a silverback named Bonne Année, a French salutation for the new year. Kahekwa, whose kidneys at age 59 can no longer handle prolonged hikes through the Congo, left the group in the care of the rangers.

A Batwa gorilla tracker slung an AK-47 over his back and entered the rainforest on a small, overgrown path. The lead ranger followed with a foot-long machete, and the tourists fell into a single-file line behind them. The green underbrush soon swallowed us.

The group wove through the forest on a trail about a foot wide, descending slick muddy hills, hopping across streams, and slogging through sucking swamp. We saw three army ant mounds; the skeletal remains from a small, unidentified rodent; and spiky “tickle leaves” that the rangers warned us not to touch. After two strenuous hours, the tracker and lead ranger halted, and we followed suit. The ranger reminded us to stay calm and avoid sudden movements. Deep rumbling grunts echoed through the silence. The tracker and ranger cut away a screen of thick reedy leaves and there, just feet away, was Bonne Année, sitting with his back to the group. He seemed indifferent to our presence, tearing plants from the root and raising them to his mouth. He made another grunting sound, communicating something to the rest of his family.

Moments later, there was a rustling behind him and a female emerged, her right hand missing from an incident with a snare years before. We watched, mesmerized by the primates’ sheer size and power.

“Before I just heard the name, ‘Kahuzi-Biega National Park’ but I didn’t know the importance,”  Augistine Bisimwa, a 29-year-old secondary school teacher and youth community leader, told me later. “I wondered why and how we can lack timbers, firewood, and the park is full of trees,” he said. He thought the government should just let people cut down the trees. Seeing the gorillas himself, though, and learning about the park’s significance to Congolese heritage and the rainforest’s contributions to slow global warming shifted his perspective, he explained. “The community tourism makes locals ambassadors for the wildlife, and slowly, it is changing the local mentality.”

As they watched the silverback munch his shoots and leaves, and the females drift in and out of view, one of the twin baby gorillas emerged from the brush. He looked curiously at the group of people looking back at him, then melted back into the safety of the jungle.

The reporting of this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.

Jess Craig

Lauren Owens Lambert

Jess Craig is an independent journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, covering science and the environment across Africa and the Middle East. In addition to her work as a journalist, Craig also works as an infectious disease epidemiologist focusing on emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance.

Marcus Westberg

Marcus Westberg

Marcus Westberg is a renowned conservation photojournalist and writer who has spent much of the past decade working for conservation organizations and covering related stories in sub-Saharan Africa, his native Sweden, and many other locations around the world. Westberg is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, a Sony Wildlife Explorer, and an Advisory Board member of Girls Who Click. His images have won numerous awards, including photojournalism prizes at European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the Siena Awards, and the Environmental Photography Awards.

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