On December 1, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) announced the launch of the “Year of the Gorilla.” About a third of the world’s last 700 mountain gorillas live in war-torn eastern Congo. As the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman recently wrote, the plight of Congo’s gorillas is “just the latest crisis within a crisis. The gorillas of Congo happen to live in one of the most contested, blood-soaked pieces of turf in one of the most contested, blood-soaked corners of Africa.”
It is certainly a worthy goal to increase international efforts to protect an endangered species. However, some of the recent media coverage of the gorillas at risk from armed conflict in Congo smacks of a dark moment in America’s history of response to genocide and mass atrocities. In a recent public lecture, Harvard professor Samantha Power eloquently recalled a comment that U.S. Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder made to the New York Times during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Schroeder said that hundreds of US citizens were calling about ape and gorilla deaths is Rwanda, but nobody was calling about the people who were dying; “there wasn’t an endangered people’s movement.”
Today, there is a growing anti-genocide constituency in the United States that is speaking up to demand action from their leaders. Maybe in 2009 we can begin t understand that the best way to save the gorillas may be by saving the people around them.