WASHINGTON – It all began with a photograph: a dead,500-pound silverback gorilla named Senkwekwe tied to a bed of wooden poles being carefully carried through a field on the shoulders of 15 mourning,African men.
Chris Johns,editor in chief of National Geographic magazine,first saw the photograph in Newsweek magazine while he was in Cape Town,South Africa,in August.
“I look at it,and I see the tragedy of the death of a magnificent silverback and the tenderness,the care and the passion that these people we see in the photograph have as they deliver this animal from the murder site to burial,” Johns said. “This is the kind of photograph that speaks to the core of National Geographic.”
Johns contacted the photographer,Brent Stirton,and teamed him up with writer Mark Jenkins and a video crew to find out why Senkwekwe and six other mountain gorillas were shot to death within two months in the Virunga Mountains of Central Africa. Poachers,the usual culprits,were ruled out because the gorillas still had their hands and heads,valuable goods on the black market.
What unfolded was an all-too-common theme in parts of Africa: starvation,ethnic strife,corruption and revenge.
A documentary of the investigation premiers Tuesday at 10 p.m., EDT and PDT,on the National Geographic channel. Jenkins and Stirton's work appeared in the July issue of National Geographic Magazine and can be seen online.
The show opens with aerial scenes of what appear to be tranquil,forested mountains. But foreboding thunder warns of the tragic story that will be told.
The Virunga region,on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo,Rwanda and Uganda,is home to the roughly 720 remaining mountain gorillas,Jenkins said. About 200 of those live in Virunga National Park in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo,where Senkwekwe and part of his family were killed.
The park rangers,Stirton said Thursday at National Geographic Headquarters after a screening of the documentary,have the most dangerous job in conservation today.
The park,Africa's oldest,lies at the center of the deadliest human conflict since World War II: two civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the ethnic conflict and genocide that began in Rwanda more than a decade ago.
The Congolese army and two separate militias still roam the territory vying for power. And poachers are never far off.
The park's 650 rangers make between $25 and $30 a month. And more than 110 have died in the line of duty in the last decade.
Godefroid Wambale,the warden of Virunga National Park,has been a ranger there for 12 years.
“My father was warden,so I took over the job,” Wambale said. “I was born in the national park. … I like animals so much.”
But the park's biggest danger has come from the hundreds of thousands of refugees who settled near the Virunga National Park and rely on its resources,namely charcoal,for survival.
“It's about that collision of the needs of wild life and the needs of a human being,” Johns said,citing a photograph of a woman begging at a ranger's feet to get her confiscated charcoal back.
The charcoal trade is a $30-million-a-year business that relies on wood found only in the park,Jenkins said. The money threatens the park,its gorillas and the rangers charged with their protection.
The documentary follows the investigation of the gorillas' deaths by a Congolese magistrate. It moves between the forces pulling at the park: starving refugees,an eccentric militia general,the Congolese military and even corrupt park officials.
Despite the risk and challenges,Wambale told the audience Thursday he wouldn't quit protecting the gorillas.
“I believe that one day the Virunga National Park will be saved,” Wambale said to applause.