Democratic Republic of Congo

From Congo with love: An Earth Day selfie for the ages.

Only the gorillas themselves know what they’re truly thinking. That said, a supposed selfie of rescued mountain gorillas posing for a relaxed snapshot with the park rangers who rescued them as babies has gone viral this Earth Day, and why not?

The gorillas are apparently trying to imitate humans, but again, who can say for certain?

It’s an arresting image, regardless. The selfie was taken at a gorilla orphanage in Virunga National Park, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), ground zero in the anti-poaching wars to help save one of the world’s most recognizable, high-profile endangered animals. There are said to be slightly more than 1,000 mountain gorillas left, of which, according to the most recent census, some 600 of which live in the Virunga Volcanoes. Though a seemingly small number, that’s still twice as many as 30 years ago, when the program to help save them was originally  established.

©Mathieu Shamavu

©Mathieu Shamavu

Virunga — the park and the gorilla conservation program— was the focus of a 2014 British documentary film, Virunga, that won the Peabody Award and was nominated for a best feature documentary Oscar at that year’s Academy Awards. The film Virunga, financed by Netflix, put public pressure on the oil company SOCO International to halt its then-controversial exploration for oil within the protected World Heritage Site.

The film told the story of four people dedicated to protecting the world’s last mountain gorillas from a range of threats, including not just the oil company but illegal hunting, land invasions, the steady encroachment of agricultural farms inside park boundaries, and the 2012 emergence of the violent M23 rebellion movement.

Park ranger Mathieu Shamavu, pictured in the gorilla selfie, is following in the muddy boot-tracks of ranger André Bauma, one of the original “gorilla caregivers” in the Netflix documentary.

@Virunga National Park

@Virunga National Park

It’s dangerous work, and not just because even an adolescent gorilla can tear a grown person from limb to limb. Five Virunga park rangers were killed in an ambush by suspected M23 rebels inside the park just last year. In all, 130 park rangers have been killed in Virunga since 1996.

Eastern DR Congo is mired in seemingly endless conflict between an unstable, corruptible government and various armed groups, driven by the wealth of priceless minerals, including many of the rare but vital materials used in today’s smartphones. Eastern DRC has also been the scene of a deadly, growing — and underreported — outbreak of the ebola virus.

It’s small wonder, then, that the gorilla selfie has touched a popular nerve in the wider world, and not just because today is Earth Day.

Deputy park director Innocent Mburanumwe told BBC’s Newsday program that the orphaned gorillas, just two- to four-months-old at the time of their rescue,  think of the rangers as their parents. The gorillas’ mothers were both killed in July, 2007.

©Facebook/Innocent Mburanumwe

©Facebook/Innocent Mburanumwe

They’ve grown up in the Senkwekwe Sanctuary and have learned to “(imitate) the humans,” Mburanumwe told BBC, “learning to be human beings.” For example, the gorillas frequently stand up and try to move around on two legs, something they wouldn’t normally do in the wild. 

“I was surprised to see it,” Mburanumwe told BBC. “It’s very curious to see how a gorilla can imitate a human and stand up.”

The selfie first came to light Thursday last week, when a ranger shared a photo on Facebook of what he called “another day at the office.”

The Virunga gorilla program is staffed by local men and women, and relies on donations from the outside world for much of its support. The risk of violence is real, and ongoing: Officials closed the park from May last year to this past February, following the death of a park ranger and the kidnapping of two British tourists.

©Elite AnitPoaching Units/Facebook

©Elite AnitPoaching Units/Facebook

Virunga is believed to be Africa’s oldest national park, according to National Geographic, but there are other parks on the continent that lay claim to that title.

Regardless, it’s hard to think of many parks that may be more important — or fragile. The Earth Day selfie and the worldwide attention it’s generated has prompted prompted program directors  to urge people to “make a difference” and donate to Virunga’s conservation efforts.

Virunga, formerly known as Albert National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and covers some 7,800 square km (3000 square miles) of some of the most breathtaking natural landscape — and unique species — found anywhere on planet Earth.

High risk, low pay and the ultimate price: The real heroes of Earth Day.

Leopold Gukiya Ngbekusa. Patrick Kisembo N’singa. Sudi Koko. Antopo Selemani. Lokana Tingiti. Joël Meriko Ari. Gertomoe Bolimola Afokao. Jonas Paluku Malyani.

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

Not household names.

In their own way, though, they made the ultimate sacrifice for what remains of the natural world in the heart of Africa. And their memory is especially poignant today, on Earth Day.

A game ranger’s pay is not significant by any means, especially in a country like Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where — and this is true — one million people died in civil conflict between 1998 and 2003 alone, according to the respected NGO the Norwegian Refugee Council. That’s a low figure. Higher estimates put that figure closer to five million, according to the Norwegian agency —  who, unlike major news organizations like CNN and BBC, actually have boots on the ground. The actual figure, as so often turns out to be the case, is probably somewhere in the middle.

Either way, it’s too many.

And while it’s easy to say the lives of a handful of park rangers don’t add up to a lot when contrasted against the sheer carnage of a civil war that — and, once again, this is true — threatens to ignite all over again, right now, as you’re reading this, the hard truth on this Earth Day is that, in so many instances, these park rangers are all that stand between the mountain gorilla and species extinction.

Once again, it’s down to the Scandinavian countries, it seems, to report on the health of the planet, even though Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland don’t exactly have a history of colonialism to answer to — at least, not in this part of the world.

virunga2 ©Netflix.png

There are two surviving groups of wild mountain gorillas remaining on the planet. One is in Virunga National Park, in DRC; the other is in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in neighbouring Uganda. Neither country is particularly stable politically, though, even for a region that inspired Joseph Conrad’s dystopian classic  Heart of Darkness, DRC is a law unto itself — an impossible-to-govern territory that sprawls over 2,300,00 square kilometres (900,00 square miles). Or, to put it in simpler, easier-to-understand terms, larger than the size of Spain, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden combined.

That’s why, when anyone with a heart and soul learns there are just 900 mountain gorillas left in the world — if that — it’s hard for the brain to comprehend, let alone make sense of it all. (Interestingly, that figure counts as a success story to some experts, who point out that when pioneering primatologist Dian Fossey first arrived in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in 1967, there were just 240 gorillas remaining in the wild — this, according to a census taken the following year.

©Mark Jordahl/Pixabay

©Mark Jordahl/Pixabay

The reality is harsh, but important to remember on this Earth Day.

Just two weeks ago, five park rangers and a driver were killed in an ambush in Virunga. The loss of life was the worst in a single incident in the history of the park, where some 170 rangers have died in the past 20 years while protecting animals — all for a salary that’s a pittance by western standards, though enough to keep their families clothed and fed. Barely.

Official statements are often bland boilerplate, standard-issue press releases that pay lip service to the dead while assuaging the concerns of outside observers and reassuring stakeholders — read: corporate investors and tourism officials — that the situation is under control and not as bad as it sounds.

There was an edge to this one, though, from Virunga chief warden Emmanuel de Merode.

“Virunga has lost some extraordinarily brave rangers who were deeply committed to working in the service of their communities,” Merode said in his statement. “It is unacceptable that Virunga’s rangers continue to pay the highest price in defence of our common heritage.”

©One Green Planet

©One Green Planet

Park officials, speaking off the record and unnamed, told the UK Guardian newspaper, that they believe the perpetrators of the ambush were the “Mai Mai,” a local self-defence militia, but the reality is that the gorillas in Virunga — and the rangers who protect them — are victimized by any number of armed groups, from poachers, illegal hunters and wildlife traffickers to bandits, thieves and rogue militias from neighbouring states still fighting the Hutu-Tsutsi wars that sparked the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and threaten today to spill over the border all over again, this time from neighbouring Burundi.

Virunga isn’t just some obscurely named park off-the-beaten track of wildlife tourism in Africa, either.  It’s the continent’s oldest national park — in historical terms, Africa’s equivalent of Yellowstone National Park.

Park rangers are recruited from neighbouring villages. Nearly all are married, and many have young children. The rangers killed two weeks ago ranged in age from 22 to 30.

How much is a life worth? According to the Guardian’s longtime Africa correspondent Jason Burke, the rangers are paid the equivalent of USD $250 a month.

©Jerome Delay/Associated Press

©Jerome Delay/Associated Press

Even at that, much of the funding comes from NGOs and private donors; a partnership was formed just 10 years ago between the Howard G. Buffett Foundation (middle son of the billionaire investor Warren Buffet), the European Union (EU) and the Congolese government.

Earth Day initiatives include making micro loans available to local families and involving local communities in their park’s future.

That isn’t just lip service, either: One of the recent trends in the war against poachers has been the recruitment of women in a frontline role — as in, literally, fighting on the front lines of armed conflict.

“I was born into a ranger family,” park ranger Jolie Kavugho Songya explained to the US-UK and French news site Women’s Advancement, in August. “My father taught me you have to go out  and try for what you want.”

Songya was just nine-years-old when she decided to follow in her ranger-father’s footsteps. She had never seen a gorilla, but she knew it was his job — and moral duty — to protect Congo’s population of endangered gorillas from militias and poachers.

©Jan Powell/Women's Advancement News Deeply

©Jan Powell/Women's Advancement News Deeply

Today, Songya — age 27 — is one of 30 women who’ve passed the stringent requirements to become full-time park rangers.

She’s neither intimidated nor dissuaded by the constant threat of violence.

“It’s risky,” she told News Deeply’s Jan Powell, “but you just have to accept it. Commit, or get out.”

Earth Day, 2018, These are your heroes.

A passion for nature: The brave new world of conservation photography.

“Can a photograph change the world?” has become, “Can a photograph save the planet?”

More and more, nature and wildlife photographers prefer to label themselves as conservation photographers, in part to reflect the perilous state of the environment today, and in part because the word “conservation” suggests a bigger scale and broader reach.

“Conservation” sounds more important, somehow, though old-school nature photographers will argue that nature itself is the reason conservation matters. Nature, after all, provides the foundation on which conservation is built.

Voting has now closed for the People’s Choice Award in the 54th Annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, or WPOTY 54 in the photography community argot. Last year’s winners in all categories are on display at the Natural History Museum in London until May 28th; if past history holds, this year’s winners will be announced in October.

In a somewhat controversial decision — controversial to the outside world, that is, as the jury vote was unanimous, a first in the 50-year history of the WPOTY awards — the grand prize went to Getty Images photojournalist Brent Stirton for his gripping, tragic image of a slaughtered rhino. 

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Stirton’s background is hard news, not wildlife per se. After decades of covering conflict zones throughout his home continent of Africa — he cut his teeth photographing the anti-apartheid struggle in his native South Africa, before moving on to cover that country’s devastating HIV/AIDS crisis —  he says he had an epiphany 10 years ago, in 2017, after photographing DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) park rangers dragging a dead mountain gorilla out of the Virunga National Park rainforest, using makeshift ropes and heavy wooden beams. 

Stirton had just enough time to take three frames before he had to leave, because, as he told The Guardian in Oct., 2015, “The army were looking for me.”

1. brent stirton gorilla.png

Stirton vowed then and there to become a lifelong crusader for the environment, using what he knows best to document the plight of endangered species, ecosystems and vanishing cultures throughout the developing world.

The People’s Choice award, by definition, is a vote by the people, and all that that implies.

It’s unlikely a picture of a dead rhino with its horn unceremoniously sawed off with a chainsaw would make the final cut for the People’s Choice Award, even if the finalists were chosen by a judging panel first and then submitted to the general public for a vote.

Even so, it’s hard not to look at the finalists’ images — a handful of which appear below — and not view them through the prism of what’s happening right now in the world’s few remaining wild places. It’s tough to see an image of a mother polar bear huddling over her newborn cubs and not realize that, within 20 years, polar bears may vanish entirely, owing to the catastrophic — and accelerating — ice melt in the northern polar regions.

Big cats often make for dramatic photographs, but again it’s hard to see a picture of a tiger today and not be reminded  that it was the apex predators — the sabre-toothed cat, a remnant of the Pleistocene epoch for some 42 million years before dying out just 11,000 years ago, or the “super croc,” Sarcosuchus, an early ancestor of the crocodile, some 12 metres (39 feet) in length — that perished in the end, leaving their legacy to their smaller, more adaptable successors.

The difference now, of course, is that much of what’s happening is caused by human hands, and humans alone have the power to make a difference. Conservation photography is part of that.

This is not new. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was famously so moved by Carleton Watkins’ stereographic illuminations of Yosemite, on the other side of the American continent, that he signed into law a bill declaring Yosemite Valley to be inviolable. Theodore Roosevelt enacted further protections in 1908, at the urging of his naturalist friend John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Yosemite played a key role in Woodrow Wilson establishing the U.S. National Park Service in 1916.

Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Carleton Watkins, "View from Inspiration Point," 1879, ©Princeton University Art Museum

Today, photographers who document the beauty and wonder of the natural world have an added responsibility — wanted or not — to shine a new, white-hot light on the crisis facing the planet today, whether it’s something as simple and life-affirming as a sloth hanging out in the rainforests of Brazil, or as complex and hard-to-take as the bloodied hand of a poacher handling an elephant tusk in Central Africa.

Both have a story to tell. They are different, and yet tragically connected. It’s good that people know that.

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THIS JUST IN — Jo-Anne McArthur's "Pikin and Appolinaire" has been declared the People's Choice. Word broke late last night from the UK.

A strong image from a strong field, and well-deserving of the recognition. The conservation message is profound, no?

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