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Who Murdered the Virunga Gorillas?
Heavily armed militias shatter the stillness in this central African park. Desperate refugees crowd park boundaries. Charcoal producers strip forests. Then, last summer, someone killed seven of these magnificent creatures in cold blood.
The killers waited until dark.
On July 22 of last year unknown assailants crouched in the forest, preparing to execute a family of gorillas. Hidden on a side slope of the Mikeno volcano in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, armed with automatic weapons, the killers had hunted down the twelve-member Rugendo family, well-known among tourists and well loved by the rangers of Virunga National Park. The patriarch of the gorilla family, a 500-pound silverback named Senkwekwe, would have sensed that the assailants were near, perhaps wrinkling his wide, black nose at their unfortunate smell, but he would not have been alarmed. Senkwekwe had seen thousands of people and had come to accept their proximity as irritating but unavoidable. So habituated to humans was the Rugendo family that the gorillas would occasionally wander out of the forest into cornfields for an impromptu picnic, angering local farmers.
Park rangers at the nearby Bukima barracks said they heard shots at eight that night. On foot patrol the next morning they found three female gorillas—Mburanumwe, Neza, and Safari—shot to death, with Safari's infant cowering nearby. The following day Senkwekwe was found dead: blasted through the chest that same night. Three weeks later the body of another Rugendo female, Macibiri, would be discovered, her infant presumed dead.
Just a month earlier, two females and an infant from another gorilla group had been attacked. The rangers had found one of the females, shot execution style in the back of the head; her infant, still alive, was clinging to her dead mother's breast. The other female was never found.
All told, seven Virunga mountain gorillas had been killed in less than two months. Brent Stirton's photographs of the dead creatures being carried like royalty by weeping villagers ran in newspapers and magazines around the world. The murders of these intelligent, unassuming animals the park rangers refer to as "our brothers" ignited international outrage.