Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 1

     The mist‑enshrouded Virunga Mountains of East Africa tower over dense highland vegetation.  Far below, crystalline lakes ringed by marsh reeds glisten in the sun.  Shy forest African Elephants walk along mountain paths in single file.  Groups of endangered Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla beringei) feed in forest glades.  Three hundred fifty of these magnificent animals, almost half their world population, reside here (Fisher 2001).  The western edge of these mountains is protected in the vast 12,800‑square‑mile Virunga National Park, bordering western Rwanda.  Some 766 species of birds reside here, more than are native to the United States and Canada combined.  Iridescent sunbirds feed on the flowers of giant lobelias, and more than 200 species of mammals live in the park (Bonner 1994).  Many of the species native to the park are found nowhere else on Earth.  This ecological treasure is Africa's first national park, set aside in 1925.  Virunga was closed to visitors other than scientists until very recently.  In the 1970s, it became a World Heritage Site, a designation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for places deserving special recognition and protection.
     In the early spring of 1994, political upheaval in the region caused a civil war that wreaked massive ecological damage and loss of wildlife in this natural paradise.  Rival tribes in neighboring Rwanda clashed violently after the country's President was killed in an airplane crash caused by a rocket launch (Wright 2001).  There were suspicions that his death had been arranged by his enemies.  In an attempt to overthrow the minority-run Tutsi government, the Hutu majority began slaughtering Tutsi tribal members.  Within months, more than 500,000 people, most of them Tutsis, were slaughtered in an appalling genocide that began with armed conflicts between army soldiers and rebels and accelerated to violence between neighbors.  People of all ages were victims, many killed by slashes from machetes or battered to death with clubs.  The Hutu failed in their attempt to overthrow the ruling Tutsi tribe and fled in panic west to neighboring Zaire, home of Virunga National Park.
     Some 2 million Rwandan Hutu refugees flowed in a steady stream into eastern Zaire, just south of the park.  Injured and starving, they crowded into camps where international aid organizations fed them and attempted to control cholera and other infectious diseases.  Within days, scenes that might evoke visions of Dante's Inferno were televised by news organizations to viewers around the world.  Gaunt, frantic people were seen scrambling frantically for food supplies or lying listlessly in the final stages of starvation and disease.  Estimates of total mortality from the war, starvation and disease exceeded 1 million people (Wright 2001).  Many of the surviving refugees were afraid to return to Rwanda and remained in the refugee camps or built settlements on hills near Virunga National Park.  To supply firewood to these 700,000 or more refugees, 30,000 people went into the rainforest each day, cutting down tens of thousands of trees (Bonner 1994).  Rwandan soldiers and others began a thriving business selling firewood throughout the refugee camps.  By November 1994, 112 square miles of the park had become partly or completely deforested, and little was done by Zairean troops or park authorities to curb the destruction (Bonner 1994).  One forest ranger said, "Trees used to block the views everywhere.  Now I see hills I didn't even know existed."  An estimated 230 truckloads of trees left the park every day (Salopek 1995). 
     In December 1994, the World Heritage Committee placed Virunga National Park on a list of "World Heritage in Danger.”  Along with the forest cutting, park wildlife was killed for food by both refugees and Zairean soldiers, who had gone unpaid for months by the failing government.  In mid-1995, more than 12,000 of Virunga National Park's Hippopotamuses (Hippopotamus amphibius) were killed for their meat and their ivory teeth, reportedly by Zairean soldiers using semiautomatic weapons.  By late September 1995, there were still 700,000 Rwandan refugees camped near the park, removing 600 metric tons of firewood from the park each day (Lang 1995).  Michel Leusch, Environmental Coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in nearby Goma, said, "The quantity of biomass may be recovered in time, but some things, like rare plants and animals, have disappeared and cannot be replaced" (Lang 1995). 
     The government of Zaire began closing refugee camps in January 1996, with more than 1 million refugees still resident in 40 camps along the border with Rwanda.  Another 700,000 Rwandan refugees stayed in camps in Tanzania and Burundi (McKinley 1996).  Although millions of dollars were donated to supply food and medication, no aid funds were allocated for alternate fuel for these refugees, such as solar cookers and propane gas stoves that would have helped prevent the devastation of Virunga's forests.  This highlights the need for an international ecological rescue fund that could ameliorate such tragedies, as well as safeguard wildlife from slaughter.  In late 1996, Zairean troops attempted to force the last of the Rwandan refuges back into their country, causing open warfare to break out, and the last of the United Nations relief workers were forced to abandon the area.  By mid-1997, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus had dispersed through the forests of Zaire, living off the land.  Thousands of Hutus, jailed on their return to Rwanda, were placed on trial in an international tribunal in 2001 for their actions during the massacre. 

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