The World Wide Fund for Nature has suspended support for field patrols at a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo as authorities probe a suspicious death, the charity announced Wednesday.
An ongoing BuzzFeed News investigation has found that the beloved global mega-charity funded, equipped, and worked directly with anti-poaching forces that have been accused of torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people at parks across Asia and Africa. At Salonga National Park, which WWF has comanaged with the Congolese government since 2015, the charity kept evidence of brutal crimes by forest rangers — including the gang rape and torture of pregnant women — under wraps.
The charity continued to support the rangers until its announcement that it was halting assistance for patrols “with immediate effect” thanks to the “tragic” discovery of a body in the park.
“We will consider lifting this suspension once the authorities have completed their investigation,” the charity said in a statement, “and can confirm that swift and decisive action will be taken against any party found to be guilty.”
The statement did not say how the person died or how the death was related to field patrols in Salonga. WWF declined to give further detail about what happened or why it decided to halt support.
WWF is closely entwined with forest rangers at Salonga, Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve. The charity assumed shared control of the park alongside the Congolese government as part of an “innovative agreement” meant to help combat a surge in poaching.
Last summer, WWF and the Congolese government commissioned a confidential report on Salonga after the nonprofit Rainforest Foundation UK sent the charity allegations of rape and killing.
The report, 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 report also found evidence that rangers from the park had killed one villager and tortured others by tying their penises with fishing lines.
The report’s findings were not made public, and two legal experts who worked on it told BuzzFeed News their investigation was cut short and that they were prevented from looking into other alleged crimes. One accused WWF of suppressing his findings and called the investigation “a parody of justice.” WWF denied suppressing the report, saying it was not publicly released because of concerns over victim confidentiality and due process, including criminal investigations against alleged perpetrators.
The internal report is one of at least four commissioned by WWF since 2015 to warn that the charity risked complicity in abuses against indigenous people. WWF kept all of those reports under wraps until BuzzFeed News exposed them, while continuing to fund the areas in question.
Wednesday’s announcement about the suspicious death marks the first time that WWF has publicly distanced itself from forest rangers, also known as “eco-guards,” since the scandal first broke in March.
In response to the BuzzFeed News revelations, the charity has commissioned an independent review led by the former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, which is still pending. The US, Germany, and the UK — all of which are WWF donors — have also launched investigations to ensure taxpayers aren’t funding abuses.
The Rainforest Foundation has been monitoring Salonga since it first alerted WWF to abuse allegations there in 2018. “This latest tragic incident suggests that adequate controls over ecoguards have still not been put in place and raises questions as to whether the guns-and-guards form of conservation imposed in places like Salonga can ever be adequately controlled,” said Simon Counsell, Rainforest’s CEO. “We urge the international donors responsible for funding ecoguard brigades to take decisive measures to ensure this never happens again.”