Conservation 2.0: Congo Park Rangers Bring Global Attention To Endangered African Wildlife

Conservation, like many other areas of our professional, political and social life, is currently adapting to new trends in information and communication technologies. Despite the colossal digital divide that exists in the Democratic Republic of Congo, blogs are becoming an important information and communication weapon in the hands of Congo park rangers. Since last year, Congo park rangers have been using blogs to communicate with the outside world about their struggle to protect the Mountain Gorilla, hippos and other endangered animals in Virunga National Park.

Virunga, the first national park in Africa, was named a United Nations World Heritage site in 1979 and classified as an endangered site in 1994. The Mountain Gorilla in Virunga National Park is listed on the Red Data List as critically endangered. There are about 700 Mountain Gorillas left in the world today.

Congo rangers started blogging after the establishment of WildlifeDirect, a charitable organization helping conservationists in Africa to tell their stories using the power of the web. WildlifeDirect is a program of the African Conservation Foundation chaired by African paleontologist and conservationist, Richard Leakey:

WildlifeDirect was established to provide support to these conservationists via the use of blogs – this enables anybody, anywhere to play a direct and interactive role in the survival of some of the world’s most precious species. We believe that the Internet provides an unprecedented means of bringing the remarkable efforts of these dedicated people to the attention of the world.

Armed with blogs and cameras, the elite park rangers tell their own stories, which have hitherto been mostly ignored by the mainstream media. Their blogs have established a new channel of communication, which allows the world to know the plight of endangered animals and the dangerous conditions they work in:

As while we’re out on patrol there is no room for mistakes, one wrong move could spell a potential disaster, which may be why Discovery Channel has labeled being a Congo Ranger as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

In addition, their blogs have become a powerful fundraising tool. Before they started raising money online, these park rangers were working for several months without pay. With blogs, the situation has changed:

I should like to thank each and every one of you for your generous donations since I started this blog on 8th January 2007…I am very happy to report the following donations:
Open Donations to Gorilla Protection: $21, 234.40 (net of Paypal fees)
Community Liaison Officers: 13 months worth of officer
Fuel for Ranger Patrols: 4
Patrol Boots: 3 pairs
Patrol Rations: 54
Patrol Tents: 1
Truck Hire: 4
Uniform for Rangers: 1
Wall Maintenance for Gorilla sector of the park: 17 kilometers

As you know Chris A donated $12,000 for a vehicle (included in open donations). This has been purchased 2nd hand from Oxfam here in Goma and the engine and spare parts for its refurbishment are being brought from Kampala. It should be on the road very soon and I will let you know! Chris also donated $2,300 for two laptops for Camp Karema, the new gorilla monitoring station we are setting up in Bukima, in the Mikeno Sector of Virunga. These have also been purchased. Georgina O donated $1,000 for the tent for Camp Karema, which is up.

Their blogs have been providing regular stories and voices from the deepest part of Africa for a global audience. There are stories of a rare sighting of 10 elephants and rumors of rebels seen in the area, birth of a baby Gorilla, Chimpanzees rescued from illegal trafficking, warning signs from a rebel group, and updates about their social life.

The Bloggers
Except for Robert and Samantha, all bloggers are Congolese. Since French, Swahili, and Lingala are the most common languages in Congo, their stories are translated into English before posting:

At the moment we write the blogs by giving the Advance Force cameras for them to record their daily lives, and then for them to sit down with us to add description and talk about their work, which we then translate into English and post.

This way of blogging is very time consuming and, as the WildlifeDirect team is only very small, will not be sustainable once we have more blogs on the go. So you can imagine we were thrilled when Kavusa suggested both English and computer lessons for the Advanced Force.

Park ranger Atamato works in Ishango, a sub-station of Virunga National Park (see Ishango bone):

My name is Atamato and above you can see me with my wife Mawanzo. We live in Ishango in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I work as a Park Ranger in Virunga National Park and oversee the Ishango Sector which, following the recent massacre of Hippos around Lake Edward, now contains the last remaining significant group of Hippos in the region.
Up until now we have been working in almost total isolation but now, thanks to WildlifeDirect, this blog is a way for me to join forces with those who are interested in conservation, and hopefully together we can work to preserve the park’s wildlife.
Welcome to my blog, and welcome to Ishango.

In one of his recent posts, Atamato writes about Mai Mai rebels:

I want to give you all an update on the situation here in Ishango, and also say a thank you for the donations that I have received through this blog and to let you know where this money will go.

As I stated on a message in the last post, it is the Mai Mai who are back in the area. This is the same rebel group who were responsible for the mass slaughter of hippos in Lake Edward at the end of last year. For the moment they are in Muramba again, which is about 12 or 13 kilometres from here, and I have heard from my sources that there are about 40 men altogether.

To be honest, at the moment in Ishango we are not equipped to deal with the Mai Mai should anything happen.

Elie Nkuba is the Commander of the Advance Force in Virunga National Parks:

Dear Friends…
My name is Elie Mundima Nkuba and I am the Commander of the Advance Force of the Rangers in Virunga National Park, in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo. I am 41 years old and I have been a Ranger for over 17 years. I have received quite a lot of training over the years, including as an alpine mountain guide and in Wildife Management.

His May 8 post, Congo Rangers, most dangerous job in the world?, reads:

As while we’re out on patrol there is no room for mistakes, one wrong move could spell a potential disaster, which may be why Discovery Channel has labeled being a Congo Ranger as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

The rangers face bullets from rebels and poachers. Last month a ranger was shot dead by poachers:

On 18th April the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that a Ranger in Nyaruhangi, in Virunga National Park, was shot dead by armed men assumed to be from the FARDC during the night of the 17th. Paul Bagambe Baibutsa was Chief of the Ruti Patrol Post. It seems that Bagambe was targeted as he was seen as an obstacle to animal poaching.

Aloma Major has been working in Virunga National Park for over 10 years:

I am 34 years old, and I have been working in the park for over 10 years. I was born in North Kivu province which is in the east of Congo. I am married, and my wife, children and I live in a village called Mutwanga which is just on the edge of the park.

I have worked with the Mountain Gorillas for most of the time I have been a ranger. I protect the Gorillas and the park from poachers and other dangerous groups who want to hunt illegally in the park. We have poachers not only from my country, Congo, but also from Sudan and Rwanda as we are close to the borders of these two countries. Virunga National Park is actually Africa’s oldest national park. It was established by the government in 1925!

This is the first time I have ever done a blog, so please forgive me if I make any mistakes. Plus my English is not that fluent so someone from Wildlife Direct helps me write this post.

Aloma's work is sponsored by Stratton Elementary School in Colorado, USA, where students have been selling pickles to raise money for him:

This last week I’ve received messages from the students of Stratton Elementary who are sponsoring my work here. Their support has been tremendous and never ending, and I have heard from their teacher Libby that towards the end of last week they had been selling giant dill “Pickles for Primates” for 50 cents a piece to raise enough for my sponsorship.

I am not a preacher nor a business man, and so it is difficult for me to find the words that express what I want to say. It is not just the physical things that the students at Stratton Elementary have made possible, like my boots and my rations, but they have also given security to me and my family. This makes it easier when I go out on patrol as I am able to concentrate on my work, and I hope that one day that all of the rangers who work for the Advance Force will also have this ongoing support.

Stratton Elementary, you have given more than money and for that I am truly thankful.

Aloma uses his blog to engage in dialogue with students at Stratton Elementary:

dear Aloma Iam happy you are safe. Are you? do you drink soda. sinserly Danny

Hello Danny, I hope you are well. We are now safe in our homes in Mutsora as the area is a lot more stable than before. And yes, I do drink soda. I like to take a coke and also I like sprite too. What is your favourite soda?

DearAloma, I’m so sorry that an other goille got killd! How is your family doing? When did that happin? I do not know wath we can do whith out you. I mena that. Love, kori

Hello Kori, and thank you for your message. Yes, we were very sad when the silverbacks were killed, it is a very sad thing to happen. They were killed at the end of last year. I am pleased to say that all in my family are in good health. How are you and your family?

Dear Aloma, I’m glad that you are helping the gorillas in the Congo. How are you doing? I like you!! Sincerely, Hannah

Dear Hannah, I’m doing very well. Thank you for all that you are doing to help our work here.

Dear Aloma, Are classes hearts are with you and family .we are listining to africin music ..we will keep giving money to you gys so we can help you gys thrue the summer . Are hearts are also with the gorillas .we love you to the bottem of my heart .we are learning about meal worms and catapeelers they are relly cool . sincerely , brittany

Thank you so much Brittany for such a kind message. It is good to know that I have such a good team behind me, so that me and my rangers can keep protecting the mountain gorillas and all the other animals here in Virunga National Park. I like caterpillars too, what is your favourite animal?

Paul Ngobobo is a senior warden with the Congolese Wildlife Authorities:

I’m Paulin Ngobobo. I’m a senior warden with the Congolese wildlife authorities known as ICCN. I’m responsible for the Southern Sector of Virunga National Park. The greatest challenge, and my biggest responsibility, is protecting the Mikeno Gorilla sector, which protects many of the last remaining Mountain Gorillas.
My wish is that this blog might inspire others, wherever they are in the world, to join in our struggle to protect our mountain gorillas who are now on the edge of extinction.

Paul has posted pictures of a newborn mountain gorilla, Kabila, named after the president of Congo, Joseph Kabila, and Ndeze, named after a local tribal chief who died just two days before the birth. And news of a sick gorilla infant:

I am happy to tell you all that the 2 1/2 year old infant of the Kabirizi family is not in grave danger. Ntibahanana has discoloration of the hair and the hair is also falling out on the thighs. Dr Jacques from the Mountain Gorilla Vet Program visited the family yesterday, but was unfortunately not able to get too close.

The post resulted into a visit by a vetenerian from the Mountain Gorilla Vet Progam:

Following my post last week Dr Jacques from the Mountain Gorilla Vet Program traveled to Bukima today in the Mikeno sector to try to see the sick 2 1/2 year old infant of the Kabirizi family. He was unable to visit the family. The trackers, who following the Mountain Gorilla families every day, had trouble locating the Kabirizi family as they had moved to about 4 hours walk from the patrol post. So by the time the trackers got back to Bukima, it was too late for Dr Jacques to set out.

Deo Sindani hopes that his blog will inspire other to help protecting Mountain Gorillas:

My name is Deo Kakule Sindani and I am Ranger in Virunga National Park in eastern Congo. I am 32-years old, I am married, and my wife, my 4 children and I all live in Mutsora, a village just inside the park…
Part of the reason is that we are so isolated, which is why I am so grateful for this blog and your support. This blog will be a diary of our efforts to protect the Mountain Gorillas of Virunga. My wish is that this blog might inspire others, wherever they are in the world, to join in our struggle to protect our Mountain Gorillas who are now on the edge of extinction.

Robert Muir is with the Frankfurt Zoological Society:

I am Robert Muir, and I manage the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s programme in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On May 3 Robert brought to the world attention plans by the Congolese military to set up a military training camp inside Virunga National Parks:

The Congolese military are going to set up a military training camp at Nyaleke, inside Virunga National Park. I was told today that after huge efforts by UNESCO, the European Union, the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) and other conservation NGOs over many many months, all efforts have failed and we are soon going to see thousands of Congolese soldiers receiving training within the borders of one of the world’s most spectacular national parks.

This is not a regular military training camp. It is called a “camp de brassage” and is one of many such camps set up for the training, redeployment and demobilization of the Congolese military. While these camps are a crucial part of the peace process in Congo, placing them within the park is potentially very damaging.

Elie Nkuba blogged about the illegal camp:

Some terrible news for the park.
There is already a small military camp illegally within the park, but we have just found out that this will be extended to house 4,000 men and maybe their families too.

So did Aloma:

There are plans to extend the military camp that is already illegally located within Virunga National Park. This is not good news for the park as the camp is going to house about 4,000 men, plus their families.

Conservation Through Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube
The rangers are not only posting pictures and text on their blogs but also videos. They have created a channel on the popular video sharing site, YouTube. Another channel has been created by Bill Creary, WildlifeDirect board member.

In an effort to communicate widely and effectively, the rangers are also using the power of social networking tools such as MySpace and Twitter. They are urging supporters to digg their stories:

We're looking for people with Digg accounts (they're free). Often, such as the gorilla and hippo killings, important news stories happen here in Africa. But without a media presence these stories often go unnoticed, and so we are looking to the internet as a window to the world.

Using blogs and social networks such as Twitter, YouTube and now MySpace, these stories are finally getting out. But they could go even further. When there is the need, we will post these stories on the MySpace Bulletin board and then urge you to Digg these stories so that even more people find out.

Congo Rangers Blogs: A Success Story of Technology and Conservation
Speaking with Saratoga News, Bill Cleary says that the use of blogs to protect Mountain Gorillas has so far been effective:

It's blogs such as Ngobobo's and his fellow rangers that Cleary knew would really help to make a difference in the fight to protect the mountain gorillas.
So far, it really is working.
One month after the site launched, $20,000 was raised, more than 600 comments and messages from the public were received and approximately 300 articles were written in the international media about the Wildlife Direct's endeavors.
Today, nearly three months after its launch, close to $60,000 has been raised through the site.

Donations have enabled them to buy a second-hand vehicle. Paulin writes on his blog:

Thanks to your generous donations we are in the process of rehabilitating a new vehicle for the Rangers. We purchased this second hand vehicle, and are working on putting in a new engine, a Turbo fuel injector, new front suspension, new tyres… basically a complete overhaul. We order the parts from Rwanda because you cannot find them easily in Goma.

Congo Rangers Blogs in the Blogosphere And Mainstream Media
Articles and posts about Wildlifedirect blogs have appeared both in mainstream media and blogosphere. Bill Cleary, in his interview with Saratoga News, points out that one month after the site launched approximately 300 articles were written in the international media about Wildlife Direct.

The National Geographic News article, Exposing Atrocities, Blogs Give Wildlife Warriors Instant SOS begins:

Getting the message out isn't easy on the front lines of wildlife conservation.
News crews and other media are seldom on hand to spread the word of efforts to save endangered animals in remote tropical regions often ravaged by war, poverty, and disease.
Now conservationists are taking matters into their own hands, via their keyboards, in harnessing the power of the blog to attract headlines and much needed support.

Fred wrote “Congo Rangers blog from the front line” back in March. Our link to Fred's post led BBC Pods and Blogs to do a story about WildlifeDirect.

Rebecca MacKinnon had this to say
after reading their blog:

I was just poking around their blogs. Great stuff: wonderful pictures and videos, and real windows onto the lives of some dedicated Congolese park rangers. If you care about African wildlife you should definitely follow their blogs. A great example of one less thing I ever would have known about if it weren't for Global Voices.

Comfortable Disorientation writes, “A blog less ordinary“:

Yesterday, I was gobsmacked (in a good way) to discover William is in the Democratic Reublic of Congo, working for Wildlife Direct. This mostly involves him blogging about the (often dangerous) work of the Rangers in Virunga National Park. I mean The Congo? That's not just Africa, that's deep, deep Africa! Somewhere I can barely imagine – so it's lucky his blog does such a good job of bringing it to life…Here's a video that William helped Elie, one of the rangers, to put together. It does a great job of introducing what his job is all about and is simply a fantastic example of why I love the internet!

Blog News (unfair and biased) posted, “Blogs For A Cause? Wildlife Blogs,”:

Concerned citizens have come to the rescue by creating their own means of spreading the word to the rest of the world � through blogging. Take for example Congo Rangers, a blog maintained by rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In October, they alerted the world to an atrocity committed against hundreds of hippos which were massacred by armed men in the Virunga National Park.
This blog is merely one of the blogs which are part of Wildlife Direct. Indeed, in these times when authorities left and right are going on about the danger of blogs, it would be good to realize the great potential of blogs to save lives � both human and otherwise.

A blog post by Elie Nkuba about a park ranger, who escaped after being held by rebels for two years, was picked up by Voice of America:

From the post on Tuesday about Jean Marie’s escape from the rebel leader 106, Samantha Newport from the WildlifeDirect team saw the story and wrote a press release. The story was then this weekend picked up by Voice of America and so on Saturday I did an interview over the phone with one of their reporters Kari in Kenya.

Mike Pflanz, The Daily Telegraph’s Africa Correspondent, notes that “Wildlife Direct is a new idea in conservation terms…“:

I come across a lot of charities and international organisations in my work, most doing admirable jobs in tough situations where, without them, little would get done.

But most move very, very slowly. There are procedures and procurements, tendered bids and bureaucracy. Wildlife Direct, a new idea in conservation terms, sidesteps a lot of that. Without wanting to sound like a spokesman for them, I’m pretty impressed (ok, I know I sound like a spokesman, but hear me out).

They’re setting up blogs written by the rangers in the parks. They’re getting pretty good hits, too. When you go online, you can read what the teams have been up to, where the gorillas are moving to, new births (two babies in the last three months in Virunga’s southern sector – pretty rare) and so on.

Then, you can send some cash, which is distributed immediately on the ground by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, a key partner of the Congolese wildlife service which has been operating in the country since the 1950s.

The Christian Science Monitor writes:

The idea is simple. Wildlife Direct acts as a conduit for information, supporting conservation workers in hazardous and remote locations.
The organization, which is registered in Washington, has sent Web wizards out to Africa, where they have established a series of online blogs, written by conservationists, rangers, and bush veterinarians, detailing their daily struggle to safeguard endangered animals.

These blogs by the Congo park rangers are one of many examples of why blogging matters and the value it can add to institutions, individuals, and society in general, even in places where the digital divide is enormous.

Related Links:

The Great Apes Survival Project

Virunga Widows Fund

International Gorilla Conservation Programme

Dr. Richard Leakey explains WildlifeDirect (video)


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