This is Part 5 of a BuzzFeed News investigation.
To read the other articles in this series, click here.
The World Wide Fund for Nature is investigating another alleged atrocity — this time, a brutal double murder — at a troubled park the charity manages in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Last week BuzzFeed News revealed that a confidential report commissioned by WWF found evidence of a gang rape, a murder, and torture by rangers at Salonga National Park — but the global mega-charity had kept it under wraps. The park is funded by the US and German governments, and American lawmakers said they were “aggressively pursuing these allegations” after BuzzFeed News brought them to light.
Investigators who worked on the report said their work had been cut short and that they were prevented from looking into other more recent crimes. Now the charity has confirmed that it will send a separate group of investigators back to the park to probe allegations that rangers executed one man by shooting him and beat a second to death in July 2017. The charity was managing the park at the time of the alleged killings.
“We are deeply concerned for those affected by alleged abuse and as we have always said, we will act decisively on any allegations, reporting to the authorities as required,” a WWF spokesperson said in a statement.
BuzzFeed News revealed in March that WWF 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, the global mega-charity launched an independent investigation led by a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Make more work like this possible by becoming a BuzzFeed News member today.
The charity insisted that “many of BuzzFeed’s assertions do not match our understanding of events” — but just days before providing that response, it was closing the inquiry into gang rape and torture by the guards in Salonga. WWF has worked at the park, Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve, since 2005, according to its website. The charity became “co-manager” of the park in 2015, assuming shared control alongside the Congolese government as it pushed to eradicate poaching in the area.
The first Salonga investigation began last summer after another nonprofit, Rainforest Foundation UK, sent the charity a report detailing a series of serious allegations. The ensuing confidential report included testimony that the park’s rangers, known as “eco-guards,” 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 that guards had tortured male villagers by tying their penises with fishing lines. WWF said that all six cases of violence in the report have been referred to prosecutors.
The findings were submitted in March this year, but the report was kept strictly confidential.
Copies were provided to both the Rainforest Foundation 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.”
In May, the Rainforest Foundation sent WWF Director General Marco Lambertini a new letter detailing the alleged double murder. The Rainforest Foundation’s chief, Simon Counsell, wrote that one man “was shot dead on the spot” and another was “severely beaten, dying of his injuries two days later.” Counsell wrote that a complaint had been sent to a local prosecutor at the time, “who apparently called a number of eco-guards for hearings.” However, the rangers did not attend, Counsell wrote.
In a statement responding to last week’s story about the first investigation, WWF said it had launched a second probe in Salonga with fieldwork to be conducted this summer. The charity did not say what this new inquiry was looking into until this week, in response to a question from BuzzFeed News.
WWF is now facing several inquiries into its work following BuzzFeed News’ investigation. Leaders of the House Committee on Natural Resources have said they are “aggressively pursuing these allegations and the role U.S. taxpayer dollars may have played in supporting activities resulting in these atrocities.”
A Republican aide from the committee said lobbyists working for the charity had only provided a redacted version of the Salonga report after BuzzFeed News sent the charity detailed questions last week — “more than three months after the Committee initially requested documents and information from WWF.”
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.