Web charity helps save Congo's gorillas

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On a blackboard in a classroom in Stratton Elementary School in Colorado Springs, Colo., a montage of photographs and fact sheets has been pinned up under the heading "Silverback Gorillas."

Together, the 43 children in the second-grade class give $244 a month to support a rarely paid and poorly equipped wildlife ranger half a world away in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Joseph Aloma Major is a foot soldier in the war to save the world's critically endangered mountain gorillas, an employee of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), Congo's wildlife service.

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Before the money started flowing from Colorado, directly donated online via a new charity website, WildlifeDirect.org, Mr. Aloma could barely do his job.

He had not been paid for several months. His patrol post had no fuel and no vehicle to put it in. And, until last month, he faced the danger of attacks from rebels commanded by dissident Army General Laurent Nkunda, whose troops controlled much of the land surrounding the park.

But now that Congo's government has signed a cease-fire with Mr. Nkunda's forces, the area is safe enough to patrol. And thanks to generous donations from people like Stratton second-grader Kori Hernandez, who donated her entire piggy bank (about $30), rangers like Aloma are now getting the money to make protection of the endangered gorillas possible again.

Risky area for gorillas and humans

The 3,000-square-mile Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site in eastern Congo where Aloma works, is home to 100 of the world's last remaining 700 mountain gorillas.

For 13 years or more, it has been a hideout for a jumble of armed militia who have wreaked havoc across the region.

Since 1996, an estimated 120 rangers have been killed in the line of duty.

As recently as January, five patrol stations were attacked and rangers forced to flee. Two silverback gorillas were slaughtered; the remains of one, including its decapitated head, were thrown in a pit.

"Virunga is the oldest such park in Africa and is home to the greatest number of mammal, bird, and reptile species on the continent," says Emmanuel de Merode, Wildlife Direct's Kenya-based director. "This, together with the mountain gorilla population, is a key to the economic relaunch of Congo, but after eight years of civil war the ICCN needs some help."

Thousands of tourists a year pay more than $400 a day or more to see mountain gorillas in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, and locals would like to have them come to war-torn Congo, too.

How the plan works

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.

Back in the West, Web-surfing animal-lovers who read the postings can click a "donate now" link. Up pops a page with a breakdown of options.

A day's patrol rations for five rangers costs $15. A pair of boots is $35; a full uniform, $45; a dome tent, $60.

Or, like the pupils in the Colorado school, donors can become Gorilla Conservation Associates and cover a ranger's $244-a-month salary package.

When the transaction is confirmed, Wildlife Direct contacts a partner organization they are working with on the ground. On the Mara Conservancy in southern Kenya, this is The Colobus Trust. In Cameroon, it is The Last Great Ape Project.

In Congo, it is the Frankfurt Zoological Society. Rob Muir is their chief conservationist based in Goma, near the Rwanda border.

Donations become gifts within days

"It's a lightning operation," says Mr. Muir, a Briton. "We have a reserve of cash we can draw on here in Congo, which we use to pay for whatever the person in Britain, America, or wherever has donated.

"We buy the boots in the market and hand them over straight away. We buy the food, the uniforms, the tents, and they're in the rangers' hands in a day or two. Then Wildlife Direct pays us back later."

The boost to the rangers' morale is instant.

"It's really a great thing," says Aloma. "We really wanted people to know how hard we were working, and now we see that they do. Soon Congo will become known for things other than war."

Wildlife Direct does not take a percentage of donations. They are separately funded by donors who cover administrative and running costs.

In the first 72 hours after Wildlife Direct started working with gorillas in Congo in January, the group received $38,000.

They've since found sponsors for 15 rangers, who were getting nothing before.

"We are very happy with this initial burst of funding," says Richard Leakey, chairman of Wildlife Direct, who's known for largely stamping out poaching of elephants in Kenya in the 1980s. "It is obviously crucial that the interest people have shown continues, but from what we can tell it is going to continue."

On the edge of the Virunga National Park's southern Mikeno sector is a forest clearing which, two months ago, was a forward base for militiamen loyal to Nkunda.

This week, instead of a rebel command center, the clearing has been reclaimed by the conservationists as a high-tech gorilla monitoring station.

Led by Muir and Augustin Kambale, the head ranger of a nearby patrol post, ICCN has set up tents, erected a mess hall, and cleared space for a satellite dish that runs on solar power for Internet connections.

Donations via Wildlife Direct paid for the $1,000 operations tent, two of the laptops the rangers will use, and will fund the satellite link when it comes online.

Five of the rangers, including Mr. Kambale, will soon be blogging about their work, hoping that more donations will soon be flowing, and their work will be given the shot in the arm it needs.

Aloma, the ranger sponsored by the Colorado students, is already blogging. He sends photos and answers questions the students send in, including one from Kori: "Do you ever cry when you do your job?"

One of the children's teachers in Colorado Springs, Melissa Stull, says the students have raised more than $700 in two months, and that they will soon launch "Pickles for Primates" to sell dill pickles to raise more money. They're also planning to auction a bicycle donated to the school.

"If they weren't so excited about it, we wouldn't have raised this kind of money," says Ms. Stull. "The kids are learning tons. We'll keep going for as long as we can."

Back in Congo, the gorillas may be sensing the window of peace that has now opened. Close to the clearing, which is to be named Camp Karema after one of the dead silverbacks, one of the eight females in a 32-strong family is suckling a 3-month-old baby.

Another family nearby has a 2-week-old baby; to have two infants born so close together is rare in Virunga National Park.

"If this peace lasts a long time, we know we can do our work and the gorillas will be safe for the first time in so many years," Kambale said last weekend, when the Monitor became the first outsiders to visit since Nkunda's troops pulled out.

"Things were so hard before," says Kambale. "We had no uniforms, no equipment, and no patrol rations. Now things are completely different. We have all that we need."

Matthew Clark contributed to this report.

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