National flags were draped over coffins, silently placed in the soil. Grief stricken people bade their last farewell to the 12 rangers of Virunga National Park – who had sacrificed their lives to safeguarding the environment.
Virunga National Park of the Democratic Republic of Congo is the first national park reserve in Africa. It is home to the endangered mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) as well as hundreds of species of rare flora and fauna. At the same time, the rich natural resources have become targets of illegal human activities such as poaching and illicit charcoal production.
The tragic event happened in April this year. The park rangers were ambushed by a group of local armed rebels, who rely on illegal logging and poaching in the park as their major income. Park rangers were their enemy. And the 12 rangers who lost their lives are only the latest victims in the long conflict between conservationists and organised crime groups.
Similar incidents occurred in Mexico earlier this year. Two conservationists who were active in protecting monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) were killed by suspected local crime groups within a week. Mexico is an important overwintering site of monarch butterflies. Each year, tens of thousands of monarchs carry out an epic migration from Canada to Mexico for overwintering. The advocacy for protecting the overwintering habitats in Mexico has threatened the illegal logging interest of crime groups, which led to the killing of the two dedicated conservationists.
Surprisingly, these implausible tragedies happen more often than you might believe. A study published in Natural Sustainability revealed that in the past 15 years (2002-2017), a total of 1,558 environmentalists have been killed—they were all protectors of the land, water or wildlife. In most cases, legal justice failed our victims. Only in 10% of the cases were the murderers convicted. The study pointed out that the figures might be conservative, as large numbers of murder cases in developing countries or authoritarian regimes go unreported. Countless environmentalists "vanished" without a trace…
To many of us city dwellers, "environmental protection" may mean only a change in our daily habits to reduce energy use or waste production. We may not be aware of the complicated and comprehensive web of interests that is involved in environmental protection. When the interests of crime groups are in question, conservationists face danger and even death threats doing their work. What can we do in Hong Kong when the conservation frontier is at the other side of the globe?
There are many things we can do. When feeling powerless, we have to keep asking the above questions and put our words into action: help generate public pressure by sharing environmental concerns on social media, develop consumer power by boycotting palm-oil based products (such as personal care products and chocolates) from unknown source, etc… Look into local conservation issues, write to the Town Planning Board to express your views on Hong Kong's development, join others in environmental petitions, support local agriculture… Every bit of action counts, and can make a change eventually!
We must never lose our hope or give up our care and passion. Only by working together can our common values and the precious Earth be protected!