Virunga national park is probably the most dangerous place to practise conservation in the world. In 2007, it was a war zone: 17 paramilitary groups, as well as rebel troops and the Congolese army were all operating in the park, situated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All the while, rangers were trying to protect the wildlife, including the world’s most endangered primate, the mountain gorilla. I had gone there with a journalist for Newsweek to document what we thought would be clashes between rangers and paramilitaries. But instead, after three days, we got word a gorilla had been killed.
We hiked into the bush with some rangers and, a few hours later, came across the first bodies. Three females had been shot. It started to rain really heavily so we headed back to our camp because it wasn’t a safe area at night. The following morning, we found Senkwekwe the silverback and yet another female. In total, seven had been killed. One of the females was pregnant and another’s baby was assumed to have run off. It must have died as well.
This photograph shows rangers and villagers carrying Senkwekwe to the park HQ in Rumangabo, where there is a special burial place for gorillas. The females were carried behind the silverback in a long procession. With utmost care, all the bullet holes had been filled with leaves, as had the gorillas’ mouths, so that no fluids would leak out. The villagers don’t have an easy relationship with the gorillas, who sometimes steal their crops, but they were horrified. It was a long walk and these are heavy animals. Usually, when you get a group of Africans, there is singing and laughter, but not on this occasion. Everyone was silent, it was very reverent.
The park’s mountain gorillas are looked after by dedicated rangers, who spend every day with them. They know them as well as their own family. The gorillas have distinct personalities and are very “human” to be around. At the time, the Congolese conservation authority was a shambles: some of the rangers hadn’t been paid for months, but they still had this incredible dedication.
Charcoal requires hardwood and a lot of it can be found in the gorilla habitat. Some rangers had been trying to find out why trees were being cut down, but the charcoal trade was making certain important people a lot of money. Killing the gorillas was a warning: stop the investigations, or more gorillas will be killed.
Ironically, one of the wardens was found to be behind the shootings. There was a court case and some rangers were fired. Two were jailed. I suppose the only good thing to come out of this was that the world woke up to the difficulties of gorilla conservation in Congo but also to conservation in general.
This photograph changed everything for me. I’d been covering the violence in Congo for a while and had taken some pretty horrific images. But this picture got a much bigger response than anything that I’d shot before to do with people. The gorillas were seen as true innocents.