GOMA - The stories here in eastern Congo are terrifying: large numbers of apes have begun attacking villagers. The main cause is the six-month-old war in the region, which forces the primates to leave their territory, and makes them see humans as a threat.
The stories from Tongo, a village 60 kilometers (37.2 miles) north of Goma in the North Kivu province, sound as if they are a movie script, but they are real. In the past few months, chimpanzees have killed ten people in Tongo and seriously wounded at least 17.
Last June, local media reported the story of a two year-old girl who was snatched from her mother's back and badly inured by five chimpanzees. The little girl was transferred to the hospital in Goma, but died two days later of her wounds. The story was only the beginning.
Tongo is near Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest nature reserve. The last 12 miles of the road to Virunga go through jungle. There are so many armed rebels roaming in these forests that it is only safe to travel on the road on market days, Wednesdays and Saturdays, when it is guarded.
Baboons are visible all along the road. They do not attack humans. "They're not aggressive. They are happy to eat up our harvest, which is already being trampled by elephants. It’s the chimpanzees that cause problems, because they attack women and children," explains Manihiro Bakundakwabo, a cobbler and civic activist in Tongo. "There isn’t a month that goes by without someone being killed by a chimpanzee."
Real attacks and wild rumors
Proof of the chimpanzees' brutality can be seen on the local children. Many have scars, or have lost ears, fingers, or toes. "Three months ago, the chimpanzees hit me and pulled my child off my back. He was wounded and traumatized. Now he does not behave normally any more," laments one mother, whose child had to be sent away from the village to avoid being stigmatized.
Along with these accounts of attacks by the apes, there are rumor that they sometimes they rape women, though a veterinarian excludes that possibility. "It is practically impossible for a chimpanzee to rape a woman. However, their sense of smell is keen and they can detect a "female" in heat from a long way off. And they can certainly attack and wound someone."
None of the accounts by victims encountered by this reporter included rape. "I had gone to hoe the beans. A group of chimpanzees surrounded me and they ripped my child off my back. They slapped and kicked me," testifies one victim. "I screamed, and finally the apes left the child alone. He suffered a skull injury and still has a lot of scars."
Around certain villages, there are now large numbers of primates that have fled their original habitat, due to armed conflicts and deforestation. Most recently, fighting broke out last spring in the North Kivu region over disputes around the implementation of a 2009 peace agreement The United Nations esimates that the violence has displaced nearly half a million people since April.
But the fighting is just the latest disruption to the primates' habitats. "These animals have been attacked, killed, and eaten by soldiers for a long time. I think they are avenging themselves against humans for the atrocities they have suffered during the wars," says a village chief in Bwito. "They must consider humans as their enemies."
Arthur Kalonji of the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) says the attacks are part of a "human-animal conflict" going on right now in Tongo. "It is clear that we have to take this into consideration. There is a concentration of these animals around several villages near Virunga National Park,” he explains.
Some villagers wish that the ICCN were more involved in helping them find solutions. "We love our flora and fauna, they are our heritage, but the ICCN isn’t doing anything to help us. In fact, they ask us to do the impossible-- for example, to show them which chimpanzees are responsible for an attack! But on the other hand, if one of us throws a stone at a chimpanzee, he is sent to prison," says one of the villagers.
Only park rangers are allowed to kill the primates. "The ICCN should build schools and health centers for us and increase the number of park rangers keeping watch over the chimpanzees, to avoid dangerous encounters," says Bakundakwabo. "They owe us that, as compensation for our injuries."