This is Part 4 of a BuzzFeed News investigation.
To read the other articles in this series, click here.
The World Wide Fund for Nature is keeping evidence of brutal crimes under wraps — including the gang rape and torture of pregnant women by rangers backed by the charity at a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A confidential report commissioned by the global megacharity and the Congolese government, and obtained by BuzzFeed News, includes testimony that rangers from Salonga National Park whipped and raped four women carrying fish by a river. Two of the women were pregnant and one later had a miscarriage.
The draft report also found evidence that rangers from the park — which is funded by the US and German governments — had killed one villager and tortured others by tying their penises with fishing lines.
The findings were submitted in March this year but have not been made public, and two legal experts who worked on the report said their investigation was cut short and that they were prevented from looking into other alleged crimes.
One investigator had to flee the park after rangers threatened to kill him in revenge for his work, documents and witness interviews show. He accused WWF of suppressing his findings and called the investigation “a parody of justice.”
This March, BuzzFeed News revealed that the world's leading conservation charity funds, equips, and works directly with anti-poaching forces that have beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted, and killed people living near wildlife parks across Asia and Africa. In response, WWF launched an independent investigation led by the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the charity insisted that “many of BuzzFeed’s assertions do not match our understanding of events.”
It has now emerged that, just days before providing that response, WWF was closing the separate inquiry into gang rape and torture by the guards in Salonga.
A draft of the report was provided to the NGO that first raised the alarm about abuses and the park’s German government funders — but documents seen by BuzzFeed News show WWF asked them to treat all details of the investigation and its findings in a “non-public fashion.”
WWF said in a statement that all the rangers implicated in the abuses had been suspended on the charity’s recommendation following the report’s findings. It said it chose not to publicly release the report because of concerns over victim confidentiality and due process, including criminal investigations against alleged perpetrators.
“It is clear that the report has been acted upon decisively by WWF, and — far from being suppressed — has been shared proactively with relevant authorities and stakeholders to enable legal and other actions,” a spokesperson said.
But it can now be revealed that WWF failed to disclose the report to a congressional committee investigating whether US aid money funded human rights abuses — until executives learned that BuzzFeed News was preparing to publish its findings this week.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the Democratic chair for the House Committee on Natural Resources, and ranking Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, said the findings were “horrific and disturbing” and the investigation would now be “aggressively pursuing these allegations and the role U.S. taxpayer dollars may have played in supporting activities resulting in these atrocities.”
“The United States cannot and must not be a party to violations of basic human rights,” their joint statement said.
A Republican aide from the committee said lobbyists working for the charity had only provided a redacted version of a report this week — after BuzzFeed News sent the charity detailed questions, and “more than three months after the Committee initially requested documents and information from WWF.”
The Washington, DC, firm that provided the committee with the report registered to lobby on behalf of WWF US on July 9, a day after BuzzFeed News approached the charity.
An official from USAID, which has spent millions in Salonga in recent years, including on rangers and law enforcement, said the organization had “raised the reports of violent crimes” with WWF and urges the charity to “address such allegations fully, openly, and transparently.”
The House inquiry is part of a wave of international probes following BuzzFeed News’ investigation. The UK’s Charity Commission has also launched an investigation, and WWF’s German branch completed its own internal inquiry, which found that the charity must overhaul its human rights policies.
WWF has worked in Salonga, Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve, since 2005, according to its website. It became “co-manager” of the park in 2015, assuming shared control alongside the Congolese government. This “innovative agreement” was meant to help combat a surge in poaching that had severely damaged the park, which is on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
Last summer, WWF and the Congolese government launched an investigation into human rights abuses after the nonprofit Rainforest Foundation UK sent the charity a report detailing allegations of rape and killing.
When BuzzFeed News asked WWF for details of the investigation earlier this year, it said it was working with local authorities to pursue cases against the accused rangers, but the work had been “held up due to an Ebola outbreak.” The World Health Organization declared the region Ebola-free in July 2018.
Days after the charity’s response in February, a team of field investigators was sent to Salonga.
The investigators — a group of lawyers, indigenous rights activists, conservation officials, and one WWF employee — wrote in their report that rangers had stopped four women who were walking along a river carrying a catch of fish. The ranger leading the patrol ordered his men to attack the women. The guards threw them to the ground, whipping their legs, according to witness testimony. Some rangers then raped the women, they said.
After the attack, bleeding and in “atrocious pain,” one pregnant woman went to a local clinic for treatment, the report said. The nurse who treated her told the investigators that her state was “critical,” and that she was kept in the clinic for five days to recover before “she had to be taken care of at home due to a lack of financial means.” The nurse told investigators that she miscarried.
Another woman had implored the guards to “spare her because she was 6-months pregnant,” the report said, but they still attacked her. Her husband told investigators that he witnessed the rape and was slapped by the guards.
The victims’ case was taken up by a lawyer, who told a park official about the attack. The official promised to withhold the rangers’ salaries to compensate the families, but they never received any money and the rangers continued to work at the park, according to the report. The report also included statements from eco-guards who denied the abuse allegations.
In a separate 2015 case, a man named Gaby Simba was collecting water at a river near his village when eco-guards arrested him and forced him to take them to his brother, who they suspected of poaching. Witnesses told investigators that Simba led the guards to his brother, Shomba, but called out a warning as they arrived. In response, Shomba reached into his hut for a gun, but was shot at by the rangers and fled into the forest. The guards then tortured Simba until he died, the report said. A nurse later told investigators that he had been stabbed.
The investigators concluded that the rangers’ actions “can be considered as premeditated murder.”
The investigators wrote in the report that they were given just eight days to complete their work, which wasn’t enough time to conduct a thorough review of the allegations or follow up on additional abuse claims.
“When we were preparing the mission, we all agreed that it should last three weeks,” one investigator told BuzzFeed News. “But when it unfolded, it was rushed.”
The investigator said that he wanted to interview a villager who said he was shot in the leg by guards, but that his partners from WWF and the Congolese government “didn’t want us to see him.” Another investigator told BuzzFeed News that he heard testimony about allegations of a recent killing but was unable to pursue the lead.
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Despite these limitations, the report made for sobering reading. The testimony of the rape victims was “consistent and unambiguous,” the investigators wrote, and 12 rangers were implicated in the alleged crime.
The investigation did not go down well inside Salonga. After finishing the probe, one of the investigators came back to the area. A senior park official told him that if he ventured inside its borders, he might “not leave alive,” he told BuzzFeed News. Soon afterward, he said, he received a phone call from the local police chief warning him to leave the park because rangers were planning to kill him.
BuzzFeed News spoke to someone who witnessed the senior official threaten the investigator. He and the investigator fled the park after the police warning, and the witness told BuzzFeed News the incident left him “morbidly afraid.”
Following the incident, the head of the nonprofit organization that the investigator works for wrote to WWF to complain about the “personal threats” made against civil society activists in a letter obtained by BuzzFeed News. The Rainforest Foundation also wrote a letter of complaint, and highlighted that it had found more recent cases of abuse at the park.
Marco Lambertini, WWF's director general, responded that WWF was “deeply concerned” by these allegations, which he said were being forwarded to the team undertaking the independent review into WWF’s work with rangers accused of abuses. He also said that the charity would warn rangers at Salonga not to threaten civil society workers and activists.
Back in Europe, WWF had promised to share its findings with both the Rainforest Foundation, which provided WWF with evidence of abuses in Salonga last summer, and the German government's development bank, which funds Salonga through its development bank.
But by March, the deadline for WWF to share the investigators’ report had passed. Asked where the report was, a WWF official told both the Rainforest Foundation and the German government that the charity had been advised not to share it with them because it would be used in their own independent review, emails seen by BuzzFeed News show.
Furious, the Rainforest Foundation’s UK CEO Simon Counsell replied that this was “completely unacceptable.”
WWF did eventually give the NGO a copy of the report — but under stringent confidentiality conditions, and using paper copies instead of email.
The German government's development bank confirmed it also received a copy of the draft report, which it was handling “on a strictly confidential basis” and said it will “draw any necessary conclusions” once the “findings of the further independent investigations initiated by the WWF are available.”
The investigator who was threatened said he hasn’t received a final copy. “All of this makes us believe that the WWF does not have the will to publish this,” he said, “and would actually like to botch the situation.”
Counsell, who is stepping down as head of Rainforest UK at the end of the year, dismissed the charity’s claims that the report could not be published to protect victims’ confidentiality. “This is not a plausible argument for concealing the report when a) the public authorities have supposedly started prosecutions and b) the perpetrators have supposedly been charged but are possibly still in the communities where they committed their offences,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The report could have been redacted to remove any information identifying vulnerable individuals. It is a pure and simple cover-up.”
WWF said that it had “advocated in the strongest terms and at the highest level” with the DRC government “to advance the judicial process and bring all alleged perpetrators to justice,” in response to the investigation. The charity said it has also ended joint patrols between rangers and military units and is working to improve its complaint system and introduce a code of conduct for staff.
An “additional independent investigation” will take place next month to further examine more recent allegations, it said.
The Congolese government declined to comment.
Zorro Maplestone, Morgane Mounier, and Claire Sergent contributed reporting to this story.
The two investigators quoted above originally agreed to be identified, but contacted BuzzFeed News after publication to request that their names be removed due to escalating concerns about their safety. This article has been updated accordingly.