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Gorilla Poaching in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda

Many extractivist companies (mining, oil, agribusiness, etc) have led to increased gorilla poaching because of the land grabbing and habitat destruction they cause. Dian Fossey was a gorilla conservationist fighting against poaching before her murder.


The Virunga Mountains, on the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are an extinct range of volcanoes rich with natural resources and biodiversity as well as home to critically endangered mountain gorillas [1]. This endemic series of gorilla plays a crucial role in maintaining forest health, such as by dispersing seeds. They also generate a significant profit in ecotourism [10]. The part of the mountains within Rwanda is in the state of Ruhengeri, where the gorilla population has been seriously threatened by a complex interaction of environmental injustices affecting wildlife and humans alike. Illegal mining for various minerals used in virtually all electronics is one of the primary threats to the Virunga Mountains and its inhabitants. Foreign companies have been occupying indigenous land and creating unsustainable population booms, leading to increased pressure on resources and higher concentrations of pollution and disease [1, 2]. It is also nearly impossible to trace minerals throughout the supply chain, making it difficult to validate if materials are from conflict-free, legal mines that are not involved in violence, landgrabbing, and economically, socially, and environmentally devastating local villages. Moreover, the mines themselves are typically deep into gorilla habitats far away from human food sources. As a result, miners, often impoverished young men forced into the business thanks to legacies of colonialism and extractivism, have no choice but to hunt gorillas for bushmeat to survive [5, 8]. British oil company SOCO International also has been drilling in the area, further exacerbating environmental justice violations as a combination of land grabbing and habitat loss brings people and gorillas in closer, often hostile contact [9].  The closer the gorillas and humans come in contact, the more tension and hostility there is between the two species owing to mutual self-defense [10].  Agribusiness also contributes to further issues as deforestation for eucalyptus plantations leads to gorillas coming to the plantations to eat the eucalyptus, an increasingly rare source of vital nutrients such as sodium. Other examples of extractive industries degrading gorilla habitats and driving humans into deeper desperation are illegal forest clearing for agriculture, illegal cattle grazing, firewood collection, small-scale timber extraction, and charcoal making [4]. Foreign company encroachment also brings with it toxic cultures of masculine imperialist domination, leading to a huge boom in gorilla poaching to supply the illegal black market trade for exotic game hunting and animal bodies to the benefit of western countries [1]. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Gorilla Poaching in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda
State or province:Ruhengeri
Location of conflict:Volcanoes National Park
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Biodiversity conservation conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral ore exploration
Establishment of reserves/national parks
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Biological resources
Live Animals
Rare metals
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Wildlife in areas such as the Virunga Mountains are killed either by live ammunition or are snared in traps set by poachers. Although gorillas are typically no longer the intended victims of these traps, there have been many cases in which gorillas have been snared accidentally. Given their significant strength and dexterity, gorillas are often able to break free from the traps, but fall ill to disease from the injuries sustained in the process [1]

Project area:16,000
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/01/1977
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Karisoke Research Center
Cornell University
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Informal workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Landless peasants
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Official complaint letters and petitions
Property damage/arson
Threats to use arms
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of livelihood
Potential: Specific impacts on women
Project StatusUnknown
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Criminalization of activists
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (undecided)
Strengthening of participation
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
Diane Fossey was found dead on December 27, 1985 from machete wounds to the head. She was likely killed for knowing too much about illegal poaching and smuggling rings.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:Fossey's conservation efforts led to a massive recovery of the mountain gorilla population, and the organizations and charities she founded continue to work and expand today. Owing to the widespread publicity she attracted to gorillas, they are now seen in a much more sympathetic light and get a lot of attention from conservationists. This has also helped cut down poaching and bushmeat practices. However, this movment has not directly addressed extractivism as a root cause.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[3] Plos One. Extreme Conservation Leads to Recovery of the Virunga Mountain Gorillas (Robbins et al. 2011)
[click to view]

Documentary. Murders in the Mist: Who Killed Dian Fossey? (Gordon 1994)
[click to view]

(Documentary series) Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist (National Geographic 2017)
[click to view]

[1] The Evergreen State College. Orientalism and Gorilla Poaching in Rwanda (Somers 2017)
[click to view]

[4] EcoAdapt. Mountain gorilla conservation and climate change. In The Implications of Global Climate Change for Mountain

Gorilla Conservation (Basebose and Gray 2013).
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[20] Vanity Fair. The Fatal Obsession of Dian Fossey (Shoumatoff 1995)
[click to view]

[5] Wired. Gorillas are being killed and eaten by miners in the Congo (Temperton 2016)
[click to view]

[16] BBC. The woman who gave her life to save the gorillas (Hogenboom 2015)
[click to view]

[10] Forbes. Rwanda’s Gorillas Have Figured Out Where To Find Their Sodium Fix. But It’s Dangerous (Grueter 2019)
[click to view]

[12] Gorilla Fund. Dian Fossey (last accessed 2-11-20)
[click to view]

[6] Smithsonian Magazine. Endangered Mountain Gorilla Populations Are Growing (Katz 2019)
[click to view]

[7] Science Delivered. Dian Fossey: The Ultimate Friend of Mountain Gorillas (Rajan 2018)
[click to view]

[8] Scientific American. 3 Decades after Dian Fossey, Gorillas Still Face Extinction (Sneed 2017)
[click to view]

[11] Crime Museum. Dian Fossey (last accessed 2-11-20)
[click to view]

[13] Animal Welfare Institute. MURDER IN THE MIST SOLVED? (2001)
[click to view]

[14] CS Monistor. Why was Dian Fossey killed? (Tepper 2014)
[click to view]

[15] Birmingham Live. Documentary sparks new theory on who killed gorilla conservationist (Manger & Rodger 2018)
[click to view]

[17] The Guardian. Fossey murder suspect arrested (Osborn 2001)
[click to view]

[18] The Los Angeles Times. Naturalist Dian Fossey Slain at Camp in Rwanda (1985)
[click to view]

[19] The Washington Post. Dian Fossey: The Crusade, the Conflict, the Night of Horror (Battiata 1986)
[click to view]

[2] CNN. Endangered mountain gorillas making a comeback (Kann 2017)
[click to view]

[9] NPR. How Africa's Oldest National Park Can Benefit Both Gorillas And Locals (Basu 2014)
[click to view]

Other documents

Dian Fossey's Tomb Photo - Zinkiol/Creative Commons
[click to view]

Dian Fossey Book Signing Photo - Gorilla Fund
[click to view]

Dian Fossey Photo - Liam White
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA, [email protected]
Last update18/02/2020
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