One of one hundred and nine sad stories

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  12. 02. 2022

The most easterly provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are still dealing with the consequences of the influx of refugees from neighbouring Rwanda, during the 1994 genocide there, and the tragedies of the two subsequent Congolese wars. These have yet to die down fully and have led to the so-called ‘Kivu conflict’, which is characterised by dozens of armed groups capable of the most heinous crimes. Even in these conditions, however, many people are working hard to protect the area’s unique nature. For example, besides the famous Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where 210 rangers sometimes literally fight to save the eastern gorillas and their habitat, there is a much smaller but equally necessary facility: the Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Center (LPRC).

Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo

It takes about an hour to drive from the town of Bukavu to the LPRC along incredibly damaged roads. Located on the grounds of a research institute built by the Belgians in the 1950s, it has been run by the charismatic Basque biologist Itsaso Vélez del Burgo Guinea for eight years. The station provides care for many species of primates, but chimpanzees dominate. There were 109 of them at the LPRC during my recent visit, and another seven were added in just the last three months. Needless to say, the already poor situation for wild animals in eastern Congo has been exacerbated by Covid.

Itsaso took us round the station, showing us the primates in the spacious enclosures, including one that had been newly built. Then she took us to feed the baby chimpanzees. This took place indoors, and the young chimps stretched their arms out through the mesh fencing. It was a heart-rending sight. I knew full well that without the mesh it would not have been possible, but it only illustrated the tragic plight of the baby chimps torn from their families.

I chose this picture from those I took during the feeding, and asked Itsaso to briefly describe the story behind it. So, what she told me was not deliberately chosen to make an impression. It is simply the "ordinary" story of one of the 109 chimpanzees in the LPRC.

So, here goes: the photo is of a male named Ushiriki. He was a victim of poachers and Congolese soldiers confiscated him at an unknown location in the summer of 2018. However, they demanded the rescue station pay $500 US dollars for “feeding him”. After much wrangling, the rangers from the aforementioned Kahuzi-Biega National Park took him from them and handed him over to the LPRC on September 9th, 2018. Ushiriki was in very poor condition – he was suffering from infection, malaria, anaemia and parasites – and he hardly ate. His treatment dragged on for weeks. Ushiriki was already well during my visit – but I still feel that the photo shows the sadness in his eyes.

And finally, a sentence that I hope will appeal to at least some of you: you can support the Lwiro Rescue Station via their website