POWELL -- A Laramie-based journalist who investigated the killing of gorillas in central Africa spoke Monday about the global connection between those animals, a long-running guerilla war and the consumer trade in electronic gadgets.
"The connection we have with the planet is much deeper and much more intricate than we ever imagine," said Mark Jenkins, a writer for National Geographic magazine, speaking at Northwest College as part of an international studies program.
Jenkins recounted his work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo reporting on the killing of seven mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park. About half of the world's 720 remaining mountain gorillas live in the park, which is slightly smaller than Yellowstone National Park.
Jenkins' tale started with the mysterious killings, but ended with a caution about how minerals illegally mined in gorilla habitat end up in a fraction of the world's cell phones and other electronics gear.
Along the way, he wove a common thread connecting the mid-1990s genocide in Rwanda, the ongoing civil war between guerilla factions in Congo and how conflicts over resources can be traced to everything from using charcoal as fuel to how laptop computers are made.
"At this point, my hope for the mountain gorillas is fairly high. My hope for the people is worse," he said.
Violent conflicts that began in neighboring Rwanda have plagued eastern Congo for years.
Jenkins has written for many national magazines and has published several books. He also teaches political science and writing at the University of Wyoming.
In researching the deaths of the gorillas, he learned how beloved they are to the people living near Virunga, and particularly to the park rangers who risk their lives patrolling the the conflict-torn region.
"In our case, they may seem like just another animal," he said.
"These rangers think of themselves as brothers and use the word brother to refer to the gorillas," he said, adding that rangers and gorillas are often buried side-by-side.
Though poaching has been mostly stopped, the gorillas' habitat has been under pressure from illegal activities in Virunga, including charcoal production. Charcoal is widely used as a household fuel in the region.
As Jenkins began investigating the illegal charcoal trade, he learned that clashing guerilla armies from Rwanda were fighting a proxy war around Virunga, still fighting over ethnic and political splits between the Hutu and Tutsi factions.
Both sides were clear-cutting sections of the park to make charcoal, which they sold to help fund their combat operations, he said.
The Congolese military helped transport the charcoal. Jenkins later came to believe that it was all being done with the blessing of the park warden, who allegedly profited from the sale of every bag of charcoal.
Chasing down the major players in the drama put Jenkins and photographer Brent Stirton in a host of dicey situations.
They met with violent and reclusive guerilla leaders, bribed locals for access and information and even found themselves wandering unknowingly a half-mile up a heavily mined jungle trail before following their own tracks back out.
Jenkins mostly downplayed the risks in his presentation, but his reporting and Stirton's photographs helped spur a change in park leadership and increase the pay for rangers in a country where the average wage is less than $2 per day.
"You try to be careful, but it can be dangerous," he said.
"The most dangerous thing on the planet is a 15-year-old boy with an AK-47" machine gun, he said.
Jenkins said he eventually learned that it was the park's former warden who had ordered corrupt rangers to kill the gorillas as a warning to other rangers who were investigating the illegal charcoal trade.
Since then, militias in the region have begun mining coltan, a metallic ore used in capacitors found in cell phones and other electronics.
A United Nations report found that more than $250 million from the sale of coltan has helped finance conflicts around Congo and the surrounding region.
Jenkins said that manufacturers are working to certify that parts are produced without "conflict coltan," much like the push to sell "conflict-free diamonds."
Jenkins said that he briefly felt "a little ashamed" for writing about seven dead gorillas in a region that has seen 5 million people die over the last 15 years as a result of ongoing civil wars.
But, because people have, until recently, lived mostly in small groups, "humans aren't genetically programmed to have an emotional response to a number like 5 million," he said.
And, he said, people are moved by stories about innocents, particularly animals.
"In a strange way, this may be beneficial to the Congolese. Nobody had been paying much attention to that war for a long time. Now, the mountain gorillas may end up helping end the conflict just to protect the gorillas," he said.