By Justin Balding, NBC News producer
Editor's note: Ann Curry's report on saving the Congo's gorillas airs tonight on the broadcast.
"My director died immediately," he recalled.
During his 17 years as a park ranger in eastern DR Congo's Virunga National Park, Pierre Kakule had many close calls, but none as close as the time he was riding with his boss. Their car hit a land-mine, and though Kakule survived, his forehead is still decorated with scars caused by the blast. In other instances he was involved in gun battles. And he has lost many friends and relatives.
Some 120 park rangers in the last 10 years have been killed trying to keep the war-torn Virunga National Park safe from poachers and armed groups looking to make money out of killing animals. Antelopes, buffaloes and elephants are all routinely slaughtered, their "bushmeat" sold in nearby towns and villages. But most sickening of all to Kakule is the killing of gorillas.
The gorilla is not just an iconic living ancestor to him, but a part of the human family tree nearing extiction. In the last two decades the worldwide gorilla population has been cut in half -- mainly by by deforestation and disease. In eastern Congo, the gorillas' plight is complicated by a 10-year war which has left hundreds of thousands of people displaced and desperate for money and food.
Kakule says he understood the answer to Congo's conservation problem was much more complex than killing poachers or putting them in jail. "We put them in prison but we didn't educate people. There was a distance between us as park guards and the population, " he laments.
So he dreamed up an extraordinary conservation experiment -- a 350 square mile laboratory-in-the-jungle for gorillas and people, about 200 miles north of the Virunga. The idea became a reality once Kakule, a local man, convinced tribal chiefs that their people and the rainforest and the gorillas would be better off as a "community conservation area" managed by the people themselves. They would declare their rainforest land a protected area, and in return they would receive development for a zone surrounding the Nature Reserve. Kakule reached out to Conservation International's Patrick Mehlman, based in Kinshasa, who, in the past seven years, has obtained more than $7 million from USAID and other donors to finance the project.
Together Kakule and Mehlman took us to see what they are creating -- called the Tayna Nature Reserve. Ours would be the first TV cameras in the remote enclave.
Five of us, laden with camera and audio gear, jammed ourselves into a small bush plane and bumped our way through the clouds. An hour later we disembarked on an unassuming dirt strip and were summarily dressed down by a man in fatigues for taking photos of it. "Strategic place" he shouted, gesticulating wildly, reminding us we were still in a war zone.
Then we drove five hours into the rainforest on a road that only just qualified as that, passing freelance gold miners sifting gravel in a stream; villagers with anything from technicolor purses to hefty logs on the heads; and lots of cattle. The cattle are a bad sign -- at least as far as the gorillas are concerned. Farmers expanding pastureland for their herds means precious rainforest is cut down -- which means the gorillas lose their habitat.
"They're a kind or barometer for the health of the rainforest," says Kakule. "Gorillas cannot live where the forest is destroyed".
But what about the people's need for dairy and meat?
"The issue," says Mehlman,"is finding a balance--finding the balance between preserving globally important biodiversity in areas where you have that and also having areas that can be used for development, that can be used for perhaps pastureland or agriculture or any number of other development activities."
Right now, he adds, the balance is upset and too many gorillas are being lost.
After five hours of rough road, past the occasional home made of mud, we emerged from the forest to an almost unbelievable sight -- the village of Kasuogh. It's a huge clearing, where new buildings have sprung up, their tin roofs reflecting the evening rays, a thriving community of several thousand people. There's a hospital, a school, even a university with 400 students dedicated to conservation science. But most amazing is that this remote corner has running water; and electricity from a small hydroelectric power station, powering satellite dishes, computers and even a radio station.
For the people here, maintaining their rainforest is personal. It's the reason they receive development aid -- and no one wants to stop that. So any would-be poachers have to take on a whole community.What's more, the people here believe that in the future their gorillas will bring eco-tourist dollars, just as they have in neighboring Rwanda.
Since it's a relatively new project, it's hard to know exactly how the experiment is affecting the gorilla population in the Tayna Nature Reserve. But according to Patrick Mehlman, early indications are that the gorillas are thriving. One of the park rangers there recently spotted a newborn baby.