News / Africa

Congo Gorilla Defenders Compete with Rebels for Charcoal Market

Emmanuel de Merode runs Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest wildlife park, which has been closed to tourists for more than a year due to eastern Congo’s civil war. Photo taken August 11, 2012.
Emmanuel de Merode runs Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest wildlife park, which has been closed to tourists for more than a year due to eastern Congo’s civil war. Photo taken August 11, 2012.
David Arnold
In the remote forests of Africa’s oldest wildlife park, and at the heart of a civil war that has decimated the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern region, the rangers of Virunga National Park are waging their own battle.  They’re fighting to save the surviving families of mountain gorillas and 200 other endangered species, as well as the forests and savannahs of this U.N. World Heritage site.
Their formidable enemies include rebel units of the anti-government M23, a force comprised mostly of ethnic Tutsis, and several other militias, including the infamous Joseph Kony’s Lords’ Resistance Army from Uganda. 
The Virunga rangers also combat poachers, who kill the gorillas to sell their heads and limbs on the black market, and a small industry of park trespassers who produce illegal charcoal.

The park’s warden, Emmanuel de Merode, estimates the rebels earn up to $35 million a year in charoal sales to support their wars.  He also suspects the illegal charcoal manufacturers are responsible for the deaths of some gorillas because the animals are a “hindrance” to the illegal industry.
De Merode took charge of the park’s security – and later its regional economic development – through an agreement between Kinshasa and the African Conservation Fund in London. He is a descendant of Belgium’s King Albert I, who established the park more than 80 years ago to save the gorillas that have since gained world renown.

Challenges for Africa's oldest wildlife park

Today, as de Merode looks across Virunga’s eastern boundary at Rwanda, he sees a nation recently plagued with massive genocide but now reporting tourism revenues of $281 million because of the world’s fascination with gorillas.
Virunga, however, is directly in the path of 15 years of a civil war in which an estimated 5.4 million people in the DRC have died. Officials claim 90 percent of the fatalities – half of them children – have died not in warfare but as a byproduct of the war: cholera, malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition. 
Since the park has been closed to tourists for more than a year due to the armed violence, the goal of building a tourism industry around the park’s wildlife is uncertain as de Merode defends the park and tries to build the regional economy.
The park maintains a corps of about 300 well-armed and highly trained park rangers. They patrol more than 7,800 square kilometers of near-pristine African environment: brilliant white glacial fields atop the Ruwenzori Mountains in the park’s north, the deep red flows of Nyiragongo’s volcanic lava in the park’s south, the gorillas in the Mikeno Mountain foothills, a few hundred hippos on Lake Albert and its marshes, and more than other 200 endangered species in between. In their battle to secure the park’s environment, more than 130 rangers have been killed.
In addition to the flora and the fauna, the rangers are also defending such park-sponsored developments as new roads, a small hydroelectric project, nine schools, a health clinic and a better way to make charcoal briquettes – a vital commodity for the region’s 4 million rural population.
Building a better briquette

Virguna’s economic planners came up with two kinds of charcoal. In the park’s innovative manufacturing site, local workers produce “the fireball”, a safer, more efficient charcoal-like briquette in a compressed form for local consumers.  The fireball is a combination of cassava paste and charcoal dust recycled from the vast and less efficient charcoal-making companies of Goma, compressed into the shape of a golf ball and sold.
Village women in the region – many of them victims of rape by rebels as they searched for firewood in the forests - are employed in hand-pressing donut-shaped briquettes using locally appropriate technology prescribed by a development lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kim Chaix, a New York fundraiser and charcoal advocate who works with park administration on several development projects said armed rebels are now close to the charcoal manufacturing site.
The charcoal briquette-making project continues for now, but the goal of a thriving tourism industry and the survival of the mountain gorillas remains uncertain.
Even while the park is closed to tourists, Chaix and de Merode plan to attract more investment for the production of palm oil, papaya enzymes and soap, and commercial crops of indigenous bamboo for their briquette-making enterprise.
“We’re trying to create peace and economic security for four million people who live within a day’s walk of the park,” Chaix said.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs