Pot Trade Threatens Gorilla Refuge in the Congo

By Dirk Hanson 05/02/11

Park rangers in the Congo say they no longer feel comfortable protecting the animals, fearing ambush by rebels intent on securing their marijuana fields.

Collateral damage in the drug war.
Photo via treehugger

It has become a grisly business, and eight park rangers have been killed in the past three months. Stefan Lovgren of National Geographic News documents a fierce battle over marijuana farms raging between rebel forces and government rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park. The rebels in the jungles of the Congo have been destroying crucial gorilla habitat with illegal charcoal kilns, and now they have added a new and lucrative revenue stream by growing marijuana in the cleared spaces left after a charcoal operation. This has upped the ante considerably, with a predictable escalation in the use of guns. Park rangers say they no longer feel comfortable breaking up charcoal operations in order to protect the animals, fearing they are being lured into ambush by rebels intent on securing their marijuana fields.

For years, American marijuana buyers have justified their transactions by saying that at least their money wasn’t going to evil thugs in South America, or sleazy international drug cartels. No, marijuana money was “clean” money, going to hippie black market growers or Mexican campesinos. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” We know better now. Unless you grow your own, it’s a crapshoot—one big, messed up international drug bazaar, and no telling where your money will end up, or how much blood will be on it. And now we get to add the death of African gorillas to the blood money aspect of the worldwide marijuana trade. In the midst of all this, the gorillas, amazingly, have been hanging in there, even though the park rangers are unable to protect them adequately, and several have been killed by the charcoal makers. The mountain gorilla population of the park has increased in the past few years, and stands at an estimated 480 animals.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]