Endangered Species Handbook

Print PDF of Section or Chapter

Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 12

     In April 1995, a third natural area in Rwanda, Akagera National Park, became threatened when 700,000 cattle and 250,000 Tutsi herders moved 15 to 20 miles into the park (Lorch 1995).  Because of a lack of arable land, Rwandans have sought out parks as the last remaining unoccupied territory.  Akagera National Park, located on the eastern border of the country, has a wide variety of fragile habitats, from swamps and savannah to forest and hills, harboring gazelles, Giraffes, African Elephants and Leopards (Lorch 1995).  Rwandan authorities did not exclude the herdsmen and their livestock but tried to convince them to cull their herds (Lorch 1995).  In southern Rwanda's Nyungwe Forest, the Wildlife Conservation Society's colobus project, which protected groups of hundreds of these monkeys, was also devastated.  In February 1995, investigators found that one-fourth of a 120-member colobus group had been killed during the war, many for their long fur, which was used in marriage rituals (Fine 1995).  Researchers came upon animal snares and concluded that this national park would no longer be protected as such, but would become a multiple-use forest (Fine 1995).
     Uganda's rare wildlife also incurred losses from Rwanda's war and Burundi's civil strife in a ripple effect.  An extremely endangered bird of the Virunga Mountains, the Congo Bay Owl (Phodilus prigoginei), was recently rediscovered after being thought extinct.  Not seen since 1951, it was seen in Uganda's Itombwe forest in mid-1996 by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society.  A type of barn owl, the Bay Owl was previously known only from a specimen collected in Zaire's Kivu province in 1951 (BI 2000, Hart 1996).  The owl is restricted to a small area of mixed rainforest and savannah near the Rwandan border (BI 2000).  Dr. John A. Hart, the zoologist who found the bird, saw farmers clearing the surrounding forest to create new farmland; they had entered the area seeking refuge from the civil wars in neighboring Rwanda and Burundi (Hart 1996).  Although the total population of the Bay Owl is not known, it is presumed to be extremely small, and its future survival is uncertain.  This area has no protected status and the entire known habitat of the endangered Congo Bay Owl is being degraded by clearing for livestock grazing and farming (BI 2000).
     Some of Rwanda's refugees fled to Tanzania as well.  More than 535,000 Rwandans traveled south into that country, staying in refugee camps near the border until December 1996, when the Tanzanian government demanded that they return to Rwanda.  Former Hutu soldiers, fearing possible imprisonment for war crimes, convinced many refugees to travel east instead, into the heart of Tanzania's Burigi National Reserve.  Once there, they stripped vegetation, killed large numbers of animals, began planting crops, and caused an increase in violent crime in local villages (AP 1996).  At this point, the Tanzanian army routed them forcibly, and a stream of refugees many miles long was pushed back into Rwanda.  
     By 2001, a state of anarchy prevailed in the region, with these countries still at war.  A United Nations report concluded that business and military leaders from Uganda and Rwanda were looting forests and parks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for natural resources and meat (Lauria 2001).  The New York-based International Rescue Committee reported in May 2001 that an estimated 2.5 million people have died as an indirect result of the previous three years of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Salopek 2001).  The fighting drove hundreds of thousands of people into the forests, where they lived off the land, dying of rampant disease and malnutrition in the rebel-held jungles (Salopek 2001).  Gangs of poachers entered these rainforests, placing snares to capture elephants, Leopards, antelope, wild pigs, and monkeys for the bushmeat, fur and ivory markets in large cities.  A camp of these poachers, many of whom come from neighboring countries, was encountered in the travels of Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Michael Fay.  Fay and his group, including National Geographic Society filmmakers, came upon a sizeable camp with a very large Leopard skin stretched out on pegs, with hundreds of antelope and monkey bodies being cooked on open fires.  Fay was so irate that he burned the entire camp and all the skins (shown on National Geographic Explorer, April 2001, entitled "Extreme Africa").  Although laws ban such killing, no game wardens patrol these forests, which were not part of a national park.  Fay's intention in traveling across Central Africa, as described in National Geographic (Quammen 2001), was to show the world the great treasure being plundered by loggers and meat hunters before it is too late to save this large rainforest.

Chapter Index
Animal Welfare Institute
    ©1983 Animal Welfare Institute