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Breaking News and Commentary: In a communiqué to the United Nations' Mission in Congo (MONUC) dissident General Laurent Nkunda has denied any involvement in the recent gorilla killings in DRC. The communiqué was copied to provincial authorities in Kivu, as well as conservation organizations and Congolese radio and television outlets.
This is worth noting for several reasons. The world media went into frenzy over the gorilla killings, and Nkunda's forces were linked by eyewitness accounts. Still, Nkunda deserves to be heard, and world media has not covered this denial.
However, this denial must be viewed in a critical context. In Eastern DRC, neither FARDC (regular Congolese army) nor Nkunda's forces have been immune from charges of atrocities by human right's organizations. Nkunda has been anchored in Kivu since late November 2006 and was stopped only by the eruption of the volcano Nyiamuragira, the big sister of Nyiragongo volcano, from completely taking the city of Sake and possibly Goma. There is no doubt that gorillas have been slaughtered, and there is also no doubt that the civilian population in DRC has suffered greatly at the hands of all militia. There is also no doubt that Nkunda's forces control the area where the gorillas were killed.
The gorilla killings, while horrendous, provoked more of an instant world media outcry than the war that is known as "Africa's World War" in the Congo. A source, speaking on background, said, "We are in the backwater of the world here, 10 million killed, and no one batted an eyelid. 1 million dead in 100 days in the Rwandan genocide and while there is no economic incentive such as oil or uranium it will remain the same." The same source notes "It is pretty clear that most of the military commanders (on all sides of the fence) have little control over the activities of their troops so directly implicating Nkunda in killing of the gorillas would be as difficult as linking Rumsfeld with events in Abu Ghraib Prison." And so it goes, fingers and weapons point everywhere, and the people and wildlife are caught in the crossfire.
The gorilla killings began on January 5 and Nkunda waited until the world press picked up on it with salacious headlines to issue his denial. It is also worth noting that Nkunda has agreed to join forces with FARDC and perhaps this environmental tragedy has overshadowed this fact, which would give him some legitimacy. The world press needs to take the humanitarian and ecological crisis in all of Africa seriously.
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"Surprise! Man Bites Gorilla Is News"
As a product of the "old" school of journalism, and getting a little long in the tooth myself, I remember the old adage attributed to the New York Sun editor, John B. Bogart. I did not pull his name full-blown from the recesses of my mind, but did what we were taught in the "old" days, and looked him up. Bogart said, "When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news."
Bogart's quote is a pithy comment on the recent tragic events in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where two, and possibly more, endangered silverbacks were killed by rebel troops loyal to dissident general Laurent Nkunda, who has since denied the accusations. Died-in-the-wool environmental activists and bloggers had been commenting for days on the killings with no noticeable hiccoughs from Big Media. Conservationists have been pounding their drums for years about similar stories, while the larger issues of human versus animal conflicts in the DRC are mostly ignored-the exception being the rating's boosting trips of cable and network anchors which provide no-follow-up and certainly no regular coverage. Meanwhile, people and wildlife struggle day to day in a heartbreaking monotony in order to find the means to survive.
The gorilla killing was ignored until a stringer somewhere in Africa came up with the lead that, my god, the rebel troops were "eating" the gorillas! The "news" that man will consume the flesh of a creature so like his own countenance is bizarre and disturbing, but it is a maddening and frightening comment on the common denominator of what accounts for taste (no pun) in news these days.
Sadly the story of a disgusting aberration, which is not to discount the evils of the bushmeat trade, became more newsworthy than the daily suffering of man and beast in the DRC. The stories about the men who protect the gorillas and the stories about other men who would do them harm were lost in the sensationalist headlines.
Biologist Ian Redmond saw gorilla killings firsthand almost thirty years ago when he worked with the slain naturalist Dian Fossey in her camp, Karisoke, high in the saddle region between Mounts Visoke and Karisimbi in the Virunga Mountains. Immortalized forever in the movie, "Gorillas in the Mists" as the "worm-boy," Redmond was the first to discover the bot-encrusted body of Fossey's favorite gorilla Digit. He was a friend to the cranky scientist, and her diary duly notes that he stayed up with her when she suffered mind-numbing nightmares after Digit's head and hands were harvested for the trophy trade.
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Gorillas are no longer killed for the trophy trade, but as Redmond notes, "motivation for the killings is sometimes unclear. It (motivation) could range from panic, to profit to hunger. Panic, because men with guns expecting any moment to meet opposition forces are likely to react to a silverback bark by shooting-even just a rustle in the bushes might be interpreted as an enemy. Profit, because meat and infant sales can bring money, and hunger, because Nkunda's troops may well include people who do regard apes as good eating."
When asked for his comments on the recent spate of publicity relating to the macabre practice of rebel soldiers eating gorilla flesh, Redmond seemed circumspect, yet rooted in what he learned from Fossey many years ago.
"What can I say," Redmond wrote. The images are shocking-another habituated gorilla killed and disturbing news for the thousands of tourists who must have watched and photographed these two (or more) gorillas over the years when DRC tourism was functioning."
"Ethical issues aside, the bald fact is that every Virunga gorilla represents about .25 per cent of the population (now thought to be nearly 400), so in the past 10 days we have seen at least half a percentage point drop in Virunga gorilla numbers. If it goes on like this - and unless Nkunda can be pressured into withdrawing his men, who is going to prevent it? The losses will mount up week by week, decades of conservation work will be undone, and one of the most valuable tourist attractions in the region will be lost."
It is worth noting that Redmond's mentor, Fossey, was adamantly opposed to tourism until the later years of her life, when she relaxed her stance, realizing that tourism equated a future for the mountain gorilla. Rwanda now features the gorilla on its currency, a testimony to the intrinsic value the country realizes in gorilla tourism.
Redmond also puts the bushmeat question into perspective, noting that the rebels will have gorillas to eat only as long as the gorillas survive.
"I am anxious not to have the press demonize people whose culture includes eating apes - if any of us had grown up in that culture, we'd think it normal too," he wrote.
Redmond understands Fossey's nightmares. If the killing of the mountain gorillas does not stop, there will be no more gorillas either for the dinner table or for the tourists.
"If you shoot a silverback, it takes about 15 years to "grow" another, assuming there are still breeding adults around. So even people who don't respect apes as sentient, self-aware, non-human beings should be aware that hunting them anything above one per cent per year leads to a population crash. And when the non-human being in question has tourists queuing up to pay $500 to spend an hour in his company, shooting him for food is the economic equivalent of a farmer shooting a prize stud bull to make burgers!"
The fact that the gorilla is a sentient being also makes the responsible journalist pause with respect to releasing the gruesome photos that document what exactly happened in the Virungas this week. To publish them will cause outrage, but is the short-term outrage worth the flaunting of the desecration which took place in no-man's land? On the other hand, rangers and MONUC soldiers risked their lives to get the story and evidence out to the press.
There is untold, never-ending suffering in Congo for man and beast alike-and our collective moral compass is failing. But the 52-year-old Redmond is clearly committed to gorilla conservation for the long haul. He is a much sought-after consultant for nature documentaries, and was closely involved in the production of the gorilla footage in David Attenborough's Life on Earth series. As chief consultant for the United Nation's Great Ape Survival Project, Redmond works to guard the future for animals in the world's most threatened environments by overseeing the signing of a declaration of support by 27 nations.
Note: Redmond made his comments before Nkunda denied involvement in the killings.