Senior conservation official charged with ordering massacre of gorillas

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2008:
GOMA, DRC–Honore Mashagiro, formerly regional director of
the Congolese Wildlife Authority for Virunga National Park in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo, was arrested at his home in Goma
on March 18, 2007 for allegedly orchestrating the killings of 10
gorillas whose remains were discovered in June and July 2007.
DRC environment minister Felicite Kalume announced the
arrest. Agence France-Presse reported that “Six foresters would also
be questioned on suspicion of having trapped and killed the animals
in the site on Mashagiro’s orders.”
“Mashagiro was in a position of great responsibility,”
Wildlife Direct spokesperson Dipesh Pabari told Claire Soares of The
Independent, “and allegedly used his authority to promote the
destruction of forest for charcoal to make money. This threatened
the gorilla habitat, so when the rangers tried to protect the
forest, he allegedly orchestrated the gorilla massacres to
discourage them.”

Congolese Nature Conservation Institute director Alexandre
Wathaut told Agence France-Presse that effects to stop charcoal
trafficking from within Virunga had been “seriously stepped up” since
the gorilla killings. “The latest development is a departure from
previous killings of gorillas,” assessed Agence France-Press, “when
suspicion has fallen on local rebel forces.”
An unnamed inside source hinted to Agence France-Presse that
the gorillas “could have been killed to create a diversion from the
illicit charcoal trade–or even to throw suspicion heat on rival park
Wrote Soares, “Poachers were not suspected because the
carcasses, potentially valuable on the bushmeat market, had been
left behind. And a hit job for the trophy trade was ruled out as the
animals still had their heads and hands.
“Mashagiro, a senior official in the Congolese Nature
Conservation Institute, was removed as director of Virunga not long
after the killings,” Soares noted–but was apparently not yet
suspected, because he was “put in charge of the gorilla population
at Kahuzi-Biega National Park.”
Mashagiro in his Kahuzi-Biega role participated in a
tree-planting ceremony on November 19, 2007 with representatives of
the Gorilla Organization, formerly called the Dian Fossey Gorilla
Fund Europe.
Dan Bucknell, Africa program manager for the Gorilla
Organization, had already observed to Soares that, “The people that
did this located the animals in one go and they knew how to approach
them, which suggests an inside job.”
Asked how long the Gorilla Organ-ization knew and worked with
Mashagiro, Gorilla Organization communications officer Abigail
Girling told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “I have passed your questions to our
field program manager, who worked with Mashagiro in the past and will
be better placed to answer. I will forward his answers as soon as
possible.” Eighteen days later no answer had come.
Paul Lughembe, coordinator of the DRC grassroots
organization Safe Environ-ment & Enhanced For All, on May 28 and
June 20, 2007 distributed electronic warnings about imminent threats
to gorillas and other animals in the Virunga region, seeking help
that never came to prevent just the sort of massacres that occurred.
But Lughembe was also at first looking in a different direction.
“The deployment of three brigades [of the newly reconstituted
DRC army] is a source of annoyance to the local population in
Rutshuru, Masisi and Lubero,” said Lughembe in his first warning.
“Locals have created their own defence groups to resist the soldiers
of the three brigades, who seem to be loyal to the renegade General
Laurent Nkunda. So the situation is confused.
“Gorillas have been taken hostage by men of war,” Lughembe
explained, who “gave an ultimatum of killing all 20 gorillas living
in the reserve” near their encampment.
By June 20, 2007, just before the gorilla killings started,
Lughembe did suspect that “corruption or influence” was enabling
bushmeat traffickers to conduct a side business in selling baby
gorillas. Lughembe on June 16 had gone to investigate a report about
one baby gorilla for sale, and found three offered by different
vendors in the same area.
Lughembe did not comment on Mashagiro’s arrest, but Bantu
Lukambo, a fellow member of his organization, could only confirm
the basic facts.
“We were all at the field to investigate the killing of two
elephants at Mabenga,” Lukambo told ANIMAL PEOPLE, and therefore
they had no new perspective to offer.
The threat to the Virunga gorillas that Lughembe anticipated
in May 2007 had emerged into global view just nine days before
Mashagiro’s arrest.
Reported BBC News on March 9, 2008, “Rebels who have seized
control of eastern DR Congo’s Gorilla Sector have said they will
execute any wildlife ranger who attempts to enter the area. Despite
the recent signing of a peace deal, a group of rebels have set up a
parallel administration in Virunga National Park. United Nations
peacekeepers say land mines have also been planted along one of the
main routes through the region.”
Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN)
senior ranger Diddy Mwanaki told the BBC that the group of rebels had
begun taking tourists into Virunga to see the mountain gorillas.
“At the moment, we reckon they are taking about two groups
per week, which generates money for their militias,” Mwanaki
blogged on a Wildlife Direct web site. “They are not–as far as we
can tell–respecting the basic regulations to ensure that the
gorillas are kept safe from disease and disturbance.”
Continued BBC News, “Following the signing of a peace
agreement to end the conflict between rebel groups and the government
in January, rangers were hopeful of quickly returning to the Gorilla
But Frankfurt Zoological Society researcher Rob Muir told BBC
News that an advance party was stopped on the road. ICCN director
Norbert Mushenzi was informed that his ICCN delegation had only been
let in out of respect for Monuc,” the U.N. peacekeeping force, and
“added that if it was not for the presence of Monuc, the delegation
would have been executed.”
About 380 mountain gorillas inhabit Virunga, Africa’s oldest
national park. This is about half of the total world population of
mountain gorillas.

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