Go Animal Early

November 24, 2008

Mapima, a baby chimp, was rescued from a Congolese army commander and a life of misery. Pic credit: Kate Holt

Jolted out of my Congo cynicism by a features editor who wasn’t convinced by my gorilla pitch. “Rob,” she said, “with a quarter of a million people displaced by this fighting isn’t it, erm, a little tasteless to be writing wildlife features.”
By day seven of my time in Goma I was more certain than ever that the worst of the fighting was over. The tussle between Nkunda and the government was no more than muscle flexing – and probably had been all along. A few days earlier one of the big donors, Echo, had declared that most of the humanitarian needs were being met. It didn’t seem at all inappropriate to be moving on to features. And the experience of John the Goat proved once again that anyone writing for the Brit papers would be well advised to Go Animal Early in any crisis (that story had the most hits on The Times website on the day of publication – the morning of the US election results).
The question though is a constant issue for the good people of Virunga National Park, who face a neverending struggle trying to raise money to protect their endangered great apes, while all around a million people have been displaced by war.

“The humanitarian crisis has to take priority but we also want to take care of the animals,” Samantha Newport, spokeswoman for the park told me. “It shouldn’t mean that we can’t do both.”

This isn’t one of those lifeboat/balloon debates where something has to give. Both can be protected and the long-term destinies of humans and the animals of Virunga National Park are intimately entwined. Virunga has a huge amount of potential as a tourist destination and ultimately protecting the park, its rangers and its wildlife will go a long way to protecting the humans around it. We’re all primates now.
Oh, and a cute pic of a baby chimp, rescued from an army commander, got the DRC’s plight on to the front page once again… and that has to be a good thing.