As we drove, Congolese soldiers—ostensibly separating a patchwork of rebel and militia camps—limped by in unlaced boots, rifles slapping against their backs. A trickle of women carried bags of charcoal burned illicitly from Virunga’s hardwood trees. Others walked by in a daze, loaded with mattresses, babies, and plastic jugs. They were fleeing the mortar fire that boomed between the hills—an outbreak of war that pitted two rival rebel groups against a coalition of the Congolese army, at least half a dozen local militias, and the Rwandan military.
When we reached Vitshumbi, fishermen idled among boats in the soft mud of the lakeshore. More than a decade ago, European research groups issued environmental reports, calibrating the ratio of fishermen to fish that would be needed to sustain the lake’s ecology. A fisherman’s license became his badge of honor, suggesting that he was part master, part guardian of the lake. But the report didn’t account for the war.
Now, on one side of the lake are fighters from one of the two rebel groups, a band of Hutus from Rwanda. They shoot elephants, hack off the tusks, leave the mutilated carcasses to scavengers, and swap the ivory for munitions. But as the elephants dwindle, the rebels have turned increasingly to tilapia and catfish for their food and income, plundering the lake’s rivulets—spawning ground long off-limits to village fishermen.
On the other side, members of a local militia called PARECO are slaughtering hippos. They sell the teeth as ivory and the flesh as prized bush meat. In the 1970s, some 29,000 hippos lived in the park. By the end of 2006, their numbers had plummeted to only a few hundred—that year, militia fighters massacred thousands. The lake water, as in the biblical plague, washed the shore red.
The killings have had an unanticipated side effect. A hippo’s defecation feeds the plankton that feed the larvae that become the fish on which the villagers rely. A single pachyderm’s 60 pounds of daily dung delivers a gargantuan bacterial feast; now, even isolated killings of the animals wreak havoc on the fragile geometry of the lake ecosystem.
There is a further complication. Waves of Congolese refugees have been settling nearby since 2005. At night, they pour onto the lake in numbers far greater than the village’s official cap of 400 boats, sometimes in stolen pirogues. They use forbidden nets to clear the leftover life from the lake.
|At one of several UN-run camps near Lake Edward, refugees from the fighting sell fish, fried dough, and firewood.
Image credit: Delphine Schrank
And so the villagers have been forced to eat the small, bony fish that they once would have tossed back into the water as trash.
“It’s hard, it’s true,” says Joseph Casseraga, a fisherman who has worked on the lake for more than 20 years. “But there is nothing else to do.” Beside a snarl of recently seized illegal nets, four of his six children doodle in the dust with sticks.