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S.O.S in Eastern Congo:Magic Sticks, Corruption and Gorilla Warfare

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Article co-authored with keith harmon


Two urgent messages arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in late August 2007—each labeled S.O.S. It is ironic that land-locked Congolese would use the international maritime distress signal S.O.S. to plea for help. As independent journalists, we feel a bit like the captains of the Carpathian in their futile attempt to rescue the passengers of the sinking Titanic. The irony of the Titanic disaster was that the ship California was floating ten miles away and capable of rescuing all onboard—but not responding to the visual S.O.S. The California analogy fits the mainstream media today, as honest men and women fire rocket flare after rocket flare from the depths of Congo, hoping and praying that anyone will take heed of the ongoing conservation and humanitarian disasters.

The puzzled crew of the California watched the Titanic’s distress signals until it was too late. Over 1500 people perished in the legendary wreck of the Titanic. By some accounts, 10 million have vanished in Congo, with 1,000 people dying daily in North Kivu Province alone. Untold lowland gorillas have vanished along with the iconic mountain gorilla. Congo’s Virunga Park is as devoid of life as the hulking wreck of the great ocean liner now rusting on the seabed of the icy North Atlantic.

On August 27, 2007 Congolese national Vital Katembo Mushegezi, a state Conservator and Senior Game Warden in the Virungas National Park, sent out an urgent S.O.S. appeal from the DRC. The second S.O.S. came from a Congolese animal rights organization that has been investigating the gorilla trade and corruption in the ranks of conservation NGOs operating within Virunga Park.

In a stunning revelation, investigators from the Innovation for Development and the Protection of the Environment (I.D.P.E.)—affiliated with the World Society for the Protection of Animals and supported by Animal Rights of Hawai’i—describe “a network of people who are in search for sticks that the big apes, such as those the gorillas and the chimpanzees use.”

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The astonishing claim—mysteriously never reported by international primatologists and big conservation NGOs like the Jane Goodall Institute and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund—is that elderly or handicapped gorillas and chimps use wooden sticks to defend themselves or to support themselves as they walk bipedally. Sorcerers—known as “marabouts”—seek these magic sticks because of the supernatural powers they possess and the sticks fetch a $20,000 price on the international market.


Conservator Vital Katembo came under attack from powerful forces seeking to maintain a long-standing silence about corruption, extortion, and criminality involving international non-government organizations (NGOs) working in the conservation, development and humanitarian sector in Central Africa. While previously concerned for his livelihood and security, Katembo was recently barred from his offices at the internationally renowned Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) and remains deeply concerned for his life and his family's security.

The ICCN was established in the 1970’s and it prospered in its early years. A much smaller equivalent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ICCN was crippled and incapacitated by decades of graft and corruption institutionalized by international NGOs in the so-called “conservation” and, more lately, “humanitarian” business sectors, as they supported the regime of dictator Joseph Mobutu (DRC/Zaire/DRC) while pursuing their self-perpetuating programs.

“The situation remains terrible and I really fear about myself,” Katembo wrote. “The Administrator Director Techniche (ADT), Benoit Kisuki, who is the second in command in ICCN headquarters in Kinshasa, has sent a verbal instruction to many expatriates and to the Provincial Director here in Goma and it’s difficult for me to know what he told them. Many rangers are supportive of my cause and all want to see an independent evaluation to probe the facts and punish all involved.”

The “cause” Katembo refers to is an expose’ of the graft, money laundering and intimidation that has been business as usual in conservation and humanitarian sectors in Central Africa. In the past year Katembo has been increasingly concerned about “conservation” in Central Africa, and he has shown unflinching courage by publicly challenging organizations and individuals who are profiting from the billion dollar conservation, development and humanitarian sectors at the expense of human suffering and exploitation of the environment. Vital Katembo has been increasingly vocal, notwithstanding the threat and actualization of retaliation over the past several months.

An August 16 communication by Mr. Katembo, challenging the activities and agenda of international NGOs in Central Africa, prompted direct retaliation because of a mis-directed email that mistakenly reached Wildlife Direct.

“I have now worked in the Virunga for almost 15 years and my experience of the last 2 years is of deception,” Vital Katembo wrote on August 16, 2007, responding to communication exchanges from Wildlife Direct director Emmanuel De Merode. “Are we saving wildlife or are we trying our best to save so called Wildlife Direct managers and experts? You are not new to learn that good people can do evil and this is so obvious in the conservation arena… Conservation in the Virungas is the last stand of oppression, corruption and colonialism.”

The above statement provoked an attack against Katembo organized by Pasteur Cosma Wilingula, Executive Director of the ICCN in Kinshasa. Katembo’s email was a mild enough comment made off-handedly to Wildlife Direct director Emmanuel De Merode, and to these authors.

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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