There was no shortage of suspects. The gorillas share the park with tens of thousands of heavily armed soldiers engaged in a three-way guerrilla war between two rival militias and the Congolese army. The park is also home to poachers and hordes of illegal charcoal producers, and it is bordered by subsistence farmers and vast refugee camps overflowing with families fleeing the bloodshed. Caught in this vortex of human misery, it would be a miracle if the animals remained unscathed. But who would kill gorillas in cold blood, and why?
Because of its unrivaled biological and geological diversity, Virunga National Park is the crown jewel of African parks. Founded in 1925, it is the oldest national park in Africa. A narrow strip of resplendent geography covering almost two million acres (slightly smaller than Yellowstone), Virunga is sanctuary to animals as varied as the okapi—imagine a zebra-giraffe combination—the Ruwenzori duiker, wintering Siberian birds, and three taxa of great apes.
"It contains the largest number of mammals, birds, and reptiles and has more endemic species than any other park on the African continent," says Emmanuel de Merode, director of WildlifeDirect, a nascent Nairobi-based organization founded by conservationist Richard Leakey. De Merode, 37, a biological anthropologist, began working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1993 and did his Ph.D. on the illegal bush-meat trade in eastern DRC.
"Virunga also has one of the largest volcano lava lakes and the greatest landscape diversity—alpine forest, moorlands, tropical forest, savanna—between 3,000 and 16,000 feet in the world," de Merode explains. "The truth is, Virunga is arguably the greatest national park on the planet."
There are roughly 720 mountain gorillas left on Earth; half live in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the other half 15 miles south in the Virunga Mountains. The volcano-studded Virunga range straddles the borders between Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC. Three parks share the Virunga region: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, which has at most a few dozen gorillas; Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda (famous for Dian Fossey's research), with perhaps 120 gorillas; and Virunga National Park, home to as many as 200.
Mountain gorillas were once a top tourist draw at Virunga National Park and have the potential to bring in several million dollars a year. This matters because Virunga, like all parks in the DRC, must generate its own income to survive. Virunga is administered by the ICCN—Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature—an organization that functions as an official agency but is barely funded by the national government. (In the U.S., this would be tantamount to having a concessionaire operate the national parks.) Without a guaranteed budget, Congo's national parks are deeply susceptible to corruption and exploitation—hallmarks of a country Transparency International named as one of the 13 most corrupt nations in 2007. Notably, the wildlife agency was a pet project of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, father of the modern African kleptocracy, who actually told his countrymen in one public address, "If you want to steal, steal a little cleverly, in a nice way. Only if you steal so much as to become rich overnight, you will be caught."
Such leadership has had catastrophic consequences for Virunga. In particular, it set the stage for a calamitous struggle between two men: Honoré Mashagiro, Virunga National Park’s chief warden at the time of the gorilla killings, and Paulin Ngobobo, warden for the southern sector of the park.