Back in Goma, Muir confirms what Brent and I had begun to suspect. "It was the battle over charcoal that provoked the gorilla killings last year. It was all about one incorruptible ranger, Paulin Ngobobo. You need to talk to Paulin. He's the real hero. He's the man that risked his life to try and save this park."
Paulin Ngobobo is in Kinshasa; last July the wildlife agency removed him from the park for his own protection. Muir arranges for him to be flown quietly into town. Several days later, in the deep of the night at an undisclosed location, I meet Ngobobo. We sit in plastic chairs beside stygian Lake Kivu. A candle on the table flickers light on him. His visage is a chiaroscuro portrait of anguish, his eyes so creased he appears much older than his 45 years.
Ngobobo insists on starting the story at the very beginning. He speaks in French, his voice so soft I can hardly hear it above the lapping of the water.
Before becoming the ICCN warden for the southern sector of Virunga National Park, Ngobobo explains, he had 20 years of conservation experience. He'd worked as the program officer of the International Gorilla Conservation Program. Before that he'd run his own NGO for a decade, teaching Pygmies how to become self-sufficient farmers rather than poachers.
When he became the sector warden in May 2006, he launched internal investigations into the illegal charcoal trade and quickly discovered that practically everyone, top to bottom, was on the take. The Hutu militia, the Congolese army, the village chiefs, even his rangers. Upper level ICCN officials were skimming income from gorilla tourism. In extreme cases, they would report having 20 gorilla tourists—at $300 a person—when the real number was 200, pocketing a cool $54,000.
Ngobobo speaks with a kind of sorrowful exactitude. Like a clean cop who was put in charge of a rotten-to-the-core precinct, he explains everything in detail—names, numbers, dates.
By rotating out a few embezzlers, Ngobobo says, he was able to restore the rangers' salaries, which were also being skimmed by their bosses, making it easier for them to resist the paltry five dollars a month the charcoal mafia would pay them to look the other way. This gradually restored their sense of duty and pride, and he began personally leading charcoal busts.
I had spent the previous two days in the park headquarters, Rumangabo, interviewing rangers and their families. They were intimately aware of the impact of Ngobobo's war on charcoal.
"This was extremely dangerous work," Marie Therese Nsangira, 53, said one dreary afternoon. She has nine children and no shoes. Her husband was one of the inspectors responsible for interdicting charcoal trafficking.
"He was on his way to work one morning when his matatu was stopped. He was dragged from the vehicle by soldiers and shot dead with his own rifle."
Aza Ayubu, 27, the wife of a Rumangabo ranger named Iyomi Imboyo, had her own horrifying tale. She was riding on the top of a truck on the way back from the market when soldiers attacked it. Her right leg was practically blown off by bullets. She doesn't know if the soldiers wanted to use the truck for charcoal smuggling, or whether the attack was in retaliation against the anti-charcoal campaign.
"I even don't know which soldiers did this," she says, pointing to her leg. "They change uniforms before they do these things."