We are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Surrounded by all kinds of plants, a group of five uniformed men advance with the safe step of the soldiers. His boots sink into the dark mud. In some corners the trees are so lush that they form a kind of green canopy, an impenetrable barrier to the tropical sun. It is a world of shadows, columns of light that filter through the leaves, strange sounds that come from the thicket, disturbing silences and signs that only people who have spent many years in this jungle can decipher. Footprints. Smells. Bent branches. Stepped herbs. The men walk in silence, slowly, carefully reading those marks. They are armed. Assault rifles: AK-47. The metallic clink of the chargers and the whistles of some birds are heard. That is all. The rest is silence. According to an expert group at New York University, more than 130 rebel groups are fighting in eastern Congo, but these men are neither military nor fighters; They are the rangers of the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The rangers’ mission – to protect animals as rare as the eastern lowland gorillas – is in jeopardy because of an obstacle no one had predicted, yet it has frozen the movements of millions of people around the world: the coronavirus. Concerned about the spread of this disease, the Congolese government closed its borders on March 25.

The interruption of tourism is a hard blow to the management of this natural space, which received about 2,800 visitors each year. It was a modest number, especially when compared to the 20,000 tourists visiting the nearby Bwindi National Park in Uganda, the home of mountain gorillas. But those revenues prevented the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park from going bankrupt. According to Gloria Mwenge Bitomwa, the coordinator of tourism activities, up to 40% of the park’s budget depended on tourism. The rest came from some NGOs and foreign cooperation agencies.

With stagnant tourism, it will be a difficult year for the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park and other nature conservation programs in Africa.

Gorilla Guardians

After a 30-minute walk, the rangers point to a huge, dark mass lying among the plants. They have found the family of Bonne Année, one of the three groups of eastern lowland gorillas accustomed to the presence of tourists. The dominant male — Bonne Année — weighs about 270 kilos. Sometimes he hits his pecs so hard that the blows can be heard many meters away. Is eating. He is not bothered by the presence of forest officers. But to demonstrate his authority, he shakes the ground with his muscular, powerful arms. Rangers try to calm him down with a human-like noise clearing his throat. That sound means: “We know that you are the boss. We don’t want to bother you. We respect you. “

“It is painful when poachers kill a gorilla,” says Lambert Mongane. “My family depends on them. That is why I will defend them for the rest of my life.” As Bonne Année’s babies curiously approach the forest rangers, Mongane looks at them as if a family reunion is about to take place. He has spent many years with him to check his health or record his behaviors. He is one of the 240 rangers in the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park. He is proud. According to him, he has an important mission. This park is the last safe trench for the eastern lowland gorillas. The rest of the range of these primates is at the mercy of poachers, lumberjacks and artisanal miners. The presence of the Congolese state is so weak in these places that the authorities cannot control illegal activities.

So far, four gorilla species or subspecies have been described. Their differences are minuscule. That is why biologists have not yet reached a consensus on this number, which generates heated debates. The only thing they agree on is that the eastern lowland gorillas are the most threatened. They are only present in a handful of forests in eastern Congo, and their populations have decreased by 77% in the past 20 years: 3,800 individuals remain.

The eastern lowland gorilla population has decreased by 77% in the last 20 years: 3,800 specimens remain

Rangers like Mongane protect these apes for a salary of $ 50 a month. The resources of the national park are limited. That is why rangers can only patrol about 38% of the 600,000 hectares of protected space. Although they have control of the areas that tourists visit, the most remote parts are still the hiding places of some militias.

Numerous challenges

The coronavirus landed in the Congo on March 10, almost two months after the first contagion in Spain. Since then, Congolese health authorities have confirmed 1,242 infections and 50 deaths. The closure of the borders has probably slowed down the spread of the pandemic, which until recently progressed on the continent in a similar way to that which occurred in Europe. But experts still hold their breath. If the health crisis spreads, this nation gathers all the ingredients for a catastrophe.

The underground of this country hides an estimated treasure of 24,000 million dollars. That is the price of mineral deposits that have not yet been exploited, an amount higher than the Gross Domestic Product of all the countries of the European Union. However, eight out of ten Congolese try to survive on less than $ 1.25 a day. It is the result of a State that has turned its back on the people since its creation in the colonial period. It has never shown a real interest in hindering companies or individuals that export natural resources with little tax. On the contrary. Congolese governments promoted the most generous tax regimes on the entire continent. The most gruesome outcome of these decisions is found in the eastern provinces, where an endless war has terrified the people for more than two decades.

Congolese people have no choice but to find their own ways to get ahead in those places where the State does not even guarantee them the most basic social services or security, and the war has ended the few paid jobs that existed. Sometimes this means breaking the rules. Also those of the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park, where artisanal mines and illegal logging have destroyed numerous hectares of forest.

Finding a conservation model that benefits wildlife and humans is now to be undertaken without the revenue from tourism

The primary threat to eastern lowland gorillas is the loss or deterioration of their habitat. The bowels of the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park are the origin of part of the smuggled gold that ends up in international markets, and of a rare combination of metals with which capacitors are manufactured in electronic devices: coltan. The trees are cut down to extract these minerals from the bowels of the protected area or to produce charcoal, a business that in the nearby Virunga National Park generates about $ 35 million a year. Its demand is inexhaustible: 98% of households in the South Kivu province use this fuel for cooking.

The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) – a government agency that manages national parks – engages in dialogue with local communities to end these activities. But officials, unable to offer alternatives, sometimes use force or receive attacks. Two rangers and at least one civilian died last year. Kahuzi-Biéga National Park has taken a step forward by hiring dozens of poachers as rangers who now use their forest knowledge to protect animals. However, finding a conservation model that benefits both wildlife and humans is still a challenge that, at least for the time being, will need to be tackled without tourism revenue. “Gorillas are one of our closest relatives,” says Mongane. They are our brothers. So we cannot allow its extinction. The decision to protect or exterminate them is in our hands.

Physical and psychological consequences for life

Before dawn, a column of uniformed rangers climbs the dirt road linking the town of Miti with the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park. The forest rangers, surrounded by orchards and eucalyptus plantations, use the flashlights of their mobile phones or simply walk in the dark.

According to a survey by the NGO Coopera, more than half of the rangers in this natural area come from poor households. Almost everyone decided to work in the park because they were looking for salaries to feed their relatives or savings to have children, and they never thought it was a dangerous job.

In the natural space they found different scenarios from those expected. 72% of park rangers believe their salaries are too low, and 53% are dissatisfied with their work, according to a Cambridge University survey.

According to Lorena Aguirre, a Spanish psychologist who has been working in the Congo for 13 years, in addition to difficult working conditions, forest officers face stressful situations, many of them violent and traumatic, including kidnappings, confrontations with firearms and Melee fights that can cause physical and psychological consequences for a lifetime.

Aguirre, the director of the NGO Coopera in the Congo, thinks that it is necessary to act immediately. For this reason, it has designed a psychosocial support program for the workers of the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park. “In eastern Congo there is a collective trauma that is rarely talked about,” says Aguirre. Last year, after psychologically evaluating 216 women living near the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park, we found alarming results: they all had clear disorders. Congolese psychiatrists insist on the high number of suicide attempts and diagnoses of depression in the region. But the province of South Kivu only has three specialists.

For Aguirre, the psychological evaluation of the rangers and a training that allows them to understand the bases of trauma and detect pathologies, will increase their effectiveness and capabilities. “If that does not happen, we cannot guarantee the security of the protected areas and the species that inhabit them,” says Aguirre. Furthermore, affected forest agents will suffer progressive deterioration in all areas of their lives.

In the Congo, an adequate mental health system would be favorable for wildlife and people. Aguirre advocates models like this, that avoid the militarization of nature conservation, and that benefit everyone.

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