Western tourists funding attacks on Virunga’s wildlife and rangers

mountain gorilla

Cut-price gorilla treks are sending children to war. (photo credit: d_proffer)

Gorillas are a major draw for tourists when they go to Africa. Because of the demand to see them and because there are so few remaining it can be very expensive to undertake a gorilla trek. In an effort to save money some tourists from Europe and America are willing to pay Congolese rebels to take them to see Virunga’s mountain gorillas.

The war that is currently being undertaken in the DR Congo has seen the gorilla sector of the Virunga National Park fall into the hands of rebel forces. Those rebel forces are now undertaking gorilla treks and offering up to 50% discount on official treks in neighbouring countries.

In an effort to get a good deal so-called eco-tourists and wildlife tourists are willing to believe the rebels when they say that the fees that they charge to guide you will go to helping and protecting the gorillas. In reality the fees go towards buying more guns, ammunition and explosives in order to continue their attacks.

Normally the daily fees to visit the gorillas can be £500 but the rebels are charging as little as £250.00 to see the apes.

M23 rebels are claiming that since they seized the gorilla sector of the park American, British and Belgian tourists have visited.

Fees paid to the official guides are normally channelled back into looking after the safety and security of the gorillas but those who pay the M23 for the privilege of visiting the gorillas are paying towards rape, murder and supporting the use of child soldiers in the bloody conflict – a high price to pay to save a few pounds.

The money given to the M23 rebels by the tourists is also being used to fund ammunition in the fight and this is contributing to the deaths of gorillas who get caught in the cross-fire or artillery barrages.

 The rebels use booking agents across the world to take bookings for the tours and will also trade under the name of the official government parks department but there is no official gorillas tours being undertaken in DR Congo at the moment because of the hostilities.

Apart from support child soldiers, mass rapes and murder those who partake of the unofficial tours also impact on official tours in neighbouring countries because they are being undercut by the rebels.

There are also concerns that the rebel run gorilla treks will put the health of the gorillas at risk due to a lack of good practices. Disease can spread easily from humans to gorillas and often visitors are required to wear masks and are banned from visiting gorillas if they have an infection. There are fears that unofficial tours will not undertake these basic hygiene practices and gorillas could become infected.

It may seem really tempting to save some money on one of these unofficial tours but remember your fees could be buying a gun for a small child to go to war or to pay for mass rape of women as a weapon of war.

2 thoughts on “Western tourists funding attacks on Virunga’s wildlife and rangers

  1. Sorry to say this is a misleading headline. It suggests that tourists are knowingly involved in funding attacks on Rangers. Nowhere does it provide evidence for tourist cash going to fund attacks on staff or wildlife in the Virungas.

    I understand the frustration that people may take short cuts and no question the NPs need the funds, but this headline does not make it clear what s going on. Nor does the article provide any sources.

    Furthermore what Agencies are taking bookings on behalf of rebels? If we knew we could organize a boycott. No agency will want to be associated with funding rebels. Since when have M23 become marketing savvy enough to start advertising budget gorilla treks worldwide?

    It is a long time since I visited Virungas. It was in Zaire then, and refugees from Rwanda were still in camps along the route. The week we were there another group had recently been kidnapped by rebels. This is an extremely poor part of the world and very volatile, but gorilla numbers have recently been reported as having grown, so I sincerely hope that the local groups are not adversely affected.

    Is it likely it is M23? According to the Virungas park staff it was Mai Mai responsible for the attack on rangers. the park headquarters are currently cut off and surrounded by heavy fighting. The staff are still there so whilst there maybe rebel camps in the park it does seem Virungas park staff and rangers are still very much there.

    I am all for supporting any effort to protect wildlife, but please, give us facts so we can stop bad practices. And do some basic homework. I have managed to check out the situation at the park itself, so perhaps this would be a good start. Next time try an interview with an Agent selling cheap treks or a phone call or email to the Cheif Warden, Emmanuel de Merode?

    • Thank you for your reply.

      There is lots of evidence to show the human rights abuses undertaken by M23 rebels including using child soldiers, executions of civilians, rape and child rape from independent organisations such as the United Nations and Human Right Watch. One of the recent reports inclue;
      http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/09/11/dr-congo-m23-rebels-committing-war-crimes

      Many of the leaders of the M23 have international arrest warrants for them for war crimes that are spread out over at least 10 years.

      For the threat to the local wildlife it is well known that M23 makes the money to fund their actions by taxing charcoal burners and protecting the charcoal burners from being closed down. Burning the forest is not good for wildlife. It is also known that while the M23 may seek to protect the gorillas they also happily poach elephants in the lower part of the park for ivory trading and also kill other aimals for bush meat. The M23 are known to be particularly active in poaching in the wildlife corridor connecting up Virunga and the Kigezi Game Reseve in Uganda.

      There are lots of reports about how the M23 are now using gorilla tourism to fund their military activities. One of the recent ones is here:
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/19/congo-rebels-gorilla-tour-insurgency

      This report tells of the Shoushou Safari Tours in Bunagana who runs unofficial gorilla tours and splits the money with the rebels. The director claims to have a network of agents across the world selling the tours for him.

      “We had 39 visitors in August alone,” said Laurent Ntawukiruwe, director of Shoushou Safari Tours. “I have agents in many different countries that help to bring tourists in. We have had German and Italian visitors, and soon we will have some French coming.” A group of British tourists were booked to visit on 29 October, but cancelled their reservation.

      Ntawukiruwe said his tours were run by rangers who had defected to M23, which is fighting an insurgency against the Democratic Republic of the Congo government. “The four rangers … are now in collaboration with M23,” he said.

      Eugene Rwabuhihi, from the M23 department of tourism, environment and conservation, suggested the rebels were planning to step up the operation. “We are preparing for tourism activities and securing the gorilla population,” he said. “When tourists come, they will pay to see the gorillas and we will receive part of that money for providing their security.”

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