July 15, 2008

Rwanda’s Demand for Charcoal Threatens Gorilla Habitat

Text of report by Rwandan news agency RNA

Kigali, 15 July: As conservationists in Virunga park struggle to protect the forests that are home to the much prized gorillas, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda [FDLR] Rwandan- backed rebels in DRCongo also want to make charcoal from cutting down the trees, as a recent encounter revealed.

Conservationists with organizations such as Wildlife Direct report that the park's dense forest is rapidly being depleted of its trees to satisfy the almost insatiable demand for charcoal. The substance is used for cooking and heating by the millions of people living in this troubled region.

On 27 June a team of rangers left the Kibumba post to patrol for charcoal makers in the Kanyamahoro area of the DRCongo side of the park that is shared with Rwanda and Uganda. They soon came across two women in the forest who were carrying bags of charcoal. The women dropped the bags and escaped into the forest, according to the rangers.

The rangers confiscated the charcoal and continued their patrol. What they did not know, as they narrate, was that the women had ran to a village to tell the local the FDLR rebels that the rangers were there.

The FDLR rebels then found the rangers and a confrontation ensued in which three rangers were captured, four managed to escape and one went into hiding.

The rebel group - some of whose members are wanted in Rwanda for genocide crimes - is subject to a regional plan in which they are required to surrender to Rwanda peacefully or to be forced.

"It was at that point that I got a call from one of the captured rangers, informing me of the situation. The rebels were unhappy that the charcoal had been confiscated and wanted it back in exchange for the rangers", explains Innocent, head of the rangers.

"I spoke to the rebel chief on the phone and told him that we could not give the illegal charcoal back. After much negotiation, the rangers were finally released that evening and they went to the nearest UN base for safety".

Innocent however says at that point there was still one ranger missing, a Mr Albert Sebagabo.

He narrates: "The rebels assured me that they didn't know where he was. We waited and waited into the night, but still no sign of Albert. The next morning at 0900 [local time] Albert finally arrived at the Kibati patrol post. He had spent the night on his own in the forest after having escaped from the rebels. He was a bit shaken and tired, but otherwise all right".

The lucrative charcoal trade is not only wreaking havoc on the park but also on its most famous inhabitants, the rare mountain gorillas, says WildLife Direct- a conservation group based in the DRCongo and Kenya that supports the park rangers working in Virunga.

Conservationists also believe that last year's execution of about seven gorillas inside the park was carried out by people associated with the charcoal trade who want the park unprotected.

The National Geographic reports that in a steady trickle teenage boys push their way down a dusty road to the bustling city of Goma - capital of North Kivu Province - their bicycles buckling under the weight of 100-pound (45-kilogram) sacks of charcoal, or makala as it's known there.

The boys are part of an illegal trade that may pose the biggest threat to one of the most pristine places on the planet, the Virunga National Park, as the research channel notes.

"The gorillas have become a hindrance for the charcoal trade," said Emmanuel de Merode, director of Wildlife Direct.

"There's a very strong incentive for these people to kill the gorillas."

Threats to the gorillas are not just coming from the Rwandan rebels. In September last year rebels loyal to DRCongo's dissident Gen Laurent Nkunda occupied sections of the park creating fear among conservationists about their fate. WildLife Direct says the rebels looted weapons and communication equipment from Jomba and Bikenge ranger patrol posts within the park.

Meanwhile, a regional inter-ministerial conference is going on in northwestern Rwanda border town of Rubavu - where delegates from the three countries are discussing a 10-year strategic conservation plan. The regional governments with their partners - the U.S and the European Union - have set up a 100m US dollar fund that they hope will go a long way to protect the region's habitat that's been bringing in vast revenue from tourism.

Originally published by RNA news agency, Kigali, in French 15 Jul 08.

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