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Published: November 2011

Africa's Albertine Rift

Tree-climbing lion, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

Rift in Paradise

As the global population soars toward nine billion by 2045, this corner of Africa shows what’s at stake in the decades ahead. The Rift is rich in rainfall, deep lakes, volcanic soil, and biodiversity. It is also one of the most densely populated places on Earth. A desperate competition for land and resources—and between people and wildlife—has erupted here with unspeakable violence. How can the conflict be stopped? Will there be any room left for the wild?

By Robert Draper
Photograph by Joel Sartore

The mwami remembers when he was a king of sorts. His judgment was sovereign, his power unassailable. Since 1954 he, like his father and grandfather before him, has been the head of the Bashali chiefdom in the Masisi District, an undulating pastoral region in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Though his name is Sylvestre Bashali Mokoto, the other chiefs address him as simply doyen—seniormost. For much of his adult life, the mwami received newcomers to his district. They brought him livestock or other gifts. He in turn parceled out land as he saw fit.

Today the chief sits on a dirty couch in a squalid hovel in Goma, a Congolese city several hours south of Masisi. His domain is now the epicenter of a humanitarian crisis that has lasted for more than a decade yet has largely eluded the world's attention. Eastern Congo has been overtaken by thousands of Tutsi and Hutu and Hunde fighting over what they claim is their lawful property, by militias aiming to acquire land by force, by cattlemen searching for less cluttered pastures, by hordes of refugees from all over this fertile and dangerously overpopulated region of East Africa seeking somewhere, anywhere, to eke out a living. Some years ago a member of a rebel army seized the mwami's 200-acre estate, forcing him, humiliated and fearing for his safety, to retreat to this shack in Goma.

The city is a hornet's nest. As recently as two decades ago Goma's population was perhaps 50,000. Now it is at least 20 times that number. Armed males in uniform stalk its raggedy, unlit streets with no one to answer to. Streaming out of the outlying forests and into the city market is a 24/7 procession of people ferrying immense sacks of charcoal on bicycles or wooden, scooter-like chukudus. North of the city limits seethes Nyiragongo volcano, which last erupted in 2002, when its lava roared through town and wiped out Goma's commercial district. At the city's southern edge lies the silver cauldron of Lake Kivu—so choked with carbon dioxide and methane that some scientists predict a gas eruption in the lake could one day kill everyone in and around Goma.

The mwami, like so many far less privileged people, has run out of options. His stare is one of regal aloofness. Yet despite his cuff links and trimmed gray beard, he is not a chief here in Goma. He is only Sylvestre Mokoto, a man swept into the hornet's nest, with no land left for him to parcel out. As his guest, a journalist from the West, I have brought no gifts, only demeaning questions. "Yes, of course my power has been affected greatly," the mwami snaps at me. "When others back up their claims with guns, there is nothing I can do."

The reign of the mwamis is finished in this corner of East Africa. The region has become a staging ground for violence of mind-reeling proportions over the past few decades: the murder and abduction of tens of thousands in northern Uganda, the massacre of more than a million in the genocides of Rwanda and Burundi, followed by two wars in eastern Congo, the last of which, known as the Great African war because so many neighboring countries were involved, is estimated to have killed more than five million people, largely through disease and starvation—the deadliest war since World War II. Armed conflicts that started in one country have seeped across borders and turned into proxy wars, with the region's governments each backing various rebel groups, a numbing jumble of acronymed militias—the LRA, FDLR, CNDP, RCD, AFDL, MLC, the list goes on—vying for power and resources in one of the richest landscapes in all of Africa.

The horrific violence that has occurred in this place—and continues in lawless eastern Congo despite a 2009 peace accord—is impossible to understand in simple terms. But there is no doubt that geography has played a role. Erase the borders of Uganda, the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania and you see what unites these disparate political entities: a landscape shaped by the violent forces of shifting plate tectonics. The East African Rift System bisects the horn of Africa—the Nubian plate to the west moving away from the Somalian plate to the east—before forking down either side of Uganda.

The western rift includes the Virunga and Rwenzori mountain ranges and several of Africa's Great Lakes, where the deep rift has filled with water. Called the Albertine Rift (after Lake Albert), this 920-mile-long geologic crease of highland forests, snowcapped mountains, savannas, chain of lakes, and wetlands is the most fecund and biodiverse region on the African continent, the home of gorillas, okapis, lions, hippos, and elephants, dozens of rare bird and fish species, not to mention a bounty of minerals ranging from gold and tin to the key microchip component known as coltan. In the 19th century European explorers like David Livingstone and John Hanning Speke came here searching for the source of the Nile. They gazed in awe at the profusion of lush vegetation and vast bodies of water, according to the scholar Jean-Pierre Chrétien: "In the heart of black Africa, the Great Lakes literally dazzled the whites."

The paradox of the Albertine Rift is that its very richness has led to scarcity. People crowded into this area because of its fertile volcanic soil, its plentiful rainfall, its biodiversity, and its high altitude, which made it inhospitable to mosquitoes and tsetse flies and the diseases they carry. As the population soared, more and more forest was cut down to increase farm and grazing land. Even in the 19th century the paradise that visitors beheld was already racked with a central preoccupation: Is there enough for everyone?

Today that question hangs over every square inch of the Albertine Rift, where the fertility rate is among the highest in the world, and where violence has erupted between humans and against animals—in a horror show of landgrabs, spastic waves of refugees, mass rapes, and plundered national parks, the last places on Earth where wildlife struggles to survive undisturbed by humans. For the impoverished residents of the region, overcrowding has spawned an anxiety so primal and omnipresent that one hears the same plea over and over again:

We want land!

The suspected lion killer sits near the shore of Lake George and plays a vigorous board game known as omweso with one of his fellow cattlemen. He looks up, introduces himself as Eirfazi Wanama, and says he cannot tell me his age or the number of his children. "We Africans don't count our offspring," he declares, "because you muzungu don't want us to produce so many children." Muzungu is slang for whites in this part of the world. Wanama offers a wry smile and says, "You don't have to beat about the bush. Some lions were killed here, and the rangers came in the middle of the night and arrested me."

In late May 2010 two rangers in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park saw vultures hovering over a field in the park about a mile from Wanama's village of Hamukungu and discovered the dead bodies of five poisoned lions. Nearby were two cow carcasses that had been laced with a bluish pesticide called carbofuran. Early intelligence pointed to Wanama; another suspect fled the area. "They held me for a day," Wanama says. "They have released me from their investigation. I am not running away."

Hamukungu is located within the boundaries of the park, whose predominant tourist attraction is its population of lions, which has dwindled by about 40 percent in less than a decade. "The number of villagers has increased," says Wilson Kagoro, the park's community conservation warden, "as has the number of cattle. And this has created a big conflict between them and us. They sneak into the park late at night to let their cattle graze. When this happens, the lions feast on the cows." Given that parkland grazing is illegal, the aggrieved pastoralists are left with no legal recourse. But that does not mean that they are without countermeasures. "We are surviving on God's mercy," Wanama says when I ask how so many people manage to survive on so little land. "The creation of this national park has made us so poor! People have to live on the land!" It's a common complaint in the overcrowded villages that ring the region's networks of parks and reserves.

Queen Elizabeth Park was established in 1952 with the growing recognition that this region had the highest biomass of large mammals of anyplace on Earth, according to Andrew Plumptre, director of the Albertine Rift Programme of the Wildlife Conservation Society. But social and political upheaval made it difficult to protect the wildlife. Over the decades poachers and desperate villagers raided the parks and decimated the populations of elephants, hippos, and lions. By 1980 the number of elephants had dropped from 3,000 to 150 in Queen Elizabeth.

Virunga National Park in eastern Congo—Africa's oldest, founded in 1925—is among the most imperiled, with many people already settled inside its boundaries. The countryside, once teeming with charismatic megafauna, is eerily vacant. The park's tourist lodges are gutted. Since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, much of the park has been closed to tourists.

The park is a war zone. Rodrigue Mugaruka is the warden of Virunga's central sector, Rwindi. He is a former child soldier who participated in the 1997 overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko, the longtime dictator of the DRC (then called Zaire). In eastern Congo the vacuum created by Mobutu's exit led to fierce competition among proxy armies and various militias for its gold, charcoal, tin, and coltan. Now Mugaruka is doing battle with militias—called Mai-Mai fighters—who control illegal fishing and charcoal production in many of the villages that have cropped up inside the park on the western shore of Lake Edward. He recently regained control of his sector from thousands of Congolese soldiers stationed there to fight off the militias. Since the government rarely paid the soldiers, they resorted to killing the wildlife for food.

Mugaruka's efforts to enforce park regulations do not sit well with the tens of thousands of Congolese who have fled areas of conflict and taken up residence in the villages. In the fishing hamlet of Vitshumbi the warden orders park rangers to chop up, douse in kerosene, and set fire to several unlicensed fishing boats, illegal nets, and bags of charcoal, while the villagers look on bitterly. In a fishing boat dented from gunfire he ferries us to Lulimbi village, from which we drive to the Ishasha River bordering Uganda, where 96 percent of the park's hippo population has been slaughtered since 1976 and sold for bush meat by militias. Later we head to the park's Mount Tshiaberimu subsector, where an armed patrol provides round-the-clock protection to 15 eastern lowland gorillas from militias and from villagers who have been encouraged by politicians to claim parkland.

Rodrigue Mugaruka knows that he's a marked man. The Mai-Mai—and the Congolese businessmen who fund them—have made him a target. "Their objective is to chase us out of the park for good," says the warden. "When we seize a boat and a net, the businessmen tell the Mai-Mai, 'Before we put another net in the water, you must go kill a ranger.' Three of mine have been killed in the lake. If you consider the whole area, more than 20 rangers have been killed."

Last January, Mugaruka's men were ambushed with a rocket-propelled grenade by militia fighters along a road that goes through the center of the park. Three rangers and five Congolese soldiers were killed. Government officials soon received a petition signed by 100,000 villagers demanding that Virunga National Park be reduced in size by nearly 90 percent. The petitioners gave the government three months to release the land, which they claimed belonged to them. After that, warned the petition, the villagers would all grow crops in the park—and defend their activities with arms.

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