Located in the province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 790,000 hectares of Virunga National Park – Africa’s oldest nature reserve – are teeming with diverse and rare wildlife. But for locals living in or near the park, the proximity of wild animals can be dangerous. Since fighting between the army and rebels broke out again in the region a couple of months ago, there have been more and more cases of wild animals, particularly chimpanzees, attacking people.
In June, a young girl was attacked and killed by chimpanzees. The incident happened in Tongo, 60 kilometres south of Goma, the capital of the North Kivu region. The two-year old was being carried on her mother’s back when she was “snatched” by five chimpanzees. She died of her wounds.
Local villagers claim that they are often attacked by chimpanzees. The Congolese press agency Syfia quoted one Tongo resident as saying: “There isn’t a month that goes by without someone being killed by a chimpanzee”. A list has been drawn up of the 17 people who have been wounded and the ten people who have been killed over “the past few months” by representatives of the local community, who claim that the authorities have “abandoned” Tongo.
The local authorities do allow residents to kill some aggressive animals if it is seen as self-defense. But only park rangers, who are members of the Congolese Wildlife Authority, have the right to kill chimpanzees because they are a protected species.
A child whose hand was injured in a chimpanzee attack.
Our Observer, Alain Wandimoyi, went to Tongo in August to photograph children who have been attacked by chimpanzees.
"The presence of armed groups in the mountains prevents us from catching the chimpanzees"
Emmanuel de Mérode is the director of Virunga National Park.
We don’t know exactly how many animal attacks there have been in the local villages, nor can we say that the chimpanzees who have attacked Tongo come from Virunga National Park. We have about 20 primates here but there are a lot more on Mount Kasali, which is a bit further away from here.Unlike gorillas, chimpanzees can become aggressive or dangerous if their habitat is threatened. They are used to living alongside people in the forests, but the human population here is continually increasing and this is affecting their habitat. The villagers cut down trees to use them for firewood. This wood is called makala (Editor’s note: this is the Swahili word for ‘charcoal’) and it is Congo’s main source of energy. Sales of makala in the city of Goma alone represent $35 million per year, and this, of course, results in deforestation on a huge scale. [There is also an illegal makala trade, which both the Congolese army and rebel forces are involved in, and our Observer estimates that this is worth $30 million per year.] As our forests are shrinking, the chimpanzees are coming to the villages to find food. This has led to a rise in the number of violent incidents involving chimpanzees and people."The problem with chimpanzees is that they can climb over the electric fence"Although we are committed to ensuring the survival of endangered species, our priority is protecting local people from these animals, and this includes those people who live outside the park’s boundaries. When we had a problem with elephants that were destroying crops we built an electric fence. But the problem with primates is that they can climb up trees and get over the fence.One possible solution would be to round up the chimpanzees and move them into areas of the park which are further away from the villages. But we’re not able to do this because of the fighting between the army and rebels. The terrain in Virunga National Park is difficult and the presence of armed groups in both the mountains and the forests prevents us from catching the chimpanzees."The real threat to the locals is the armed groups, not the animals"People have been asking us to kill these chimpanzees. Even though we have the right to do so, when a species is endangered we want to avoid killing them. We’ve had some bad experiences in the past with people making false complaints. On one occasion, people were unhappy about the gorillas. We considered taking action, but then we realised that the complaints were a complete fabrication. They wanted the gorillas killed in order to make life easier for the poachers and traffickers who travel through the forest.What happened to the young girl in June was tragic but we mustn’t forget that in Virunga Park the real threat for the local population is the armed groups, not the animals. Twelve park rangers have been killed by rebel soldiers since January, eleven of whom died whilst protecting civilians on park roads.
Park rangers move a Virunga Park gorilla from one zone, where it had been destroying crops, to another zone much further away. This video was filmed in 2010.