Gorilla Journal 2/1994

Klaus- Jürgen Sucker and his team of Magahinga Scouts

In the 1/94 issue of the Gorilla Journal, we already relayed the sad news of the death of Klaus- Jürgen Sucker, the leader of the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Project and long-standing member of Bergorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe (BRD). The following report gives an overview of Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's life and work, which he devoted to the mountain gorillas and their environment, and examines the facts so far known to us concerning his as yet unexplained death.

On 20 June 1994 Klaus-Jürgen Sucker was found strangled in his house in Kisoro by his housekeeper. The 37-year-old leader of the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Project in Uganda, which was created by the BRD and the Deutscher Tierschutzbund (German Animal Protection Society), was dead. The authorities gave suicide as the cause of death. However, there are many indications that Klaus-Jürgen Sucker was the victim of a crime. As a dedicated conservationist, he had many enemies, ranging from poachers and smugglers to the leaders of a developmental aid project who wanted to establish sustainable use projects in this small national park. With Klaus-Jürgen, they were dealing with someone whose first priority was the protection and conservation of fauna and flora and who acted accordingly.

The Beginning

When Klaus-Jürgen Sucker arrived in Uganda 5 years ago in order to realize his lifelong dream, Mgahinga Forest Reserve, which had been gazetted as early as 1930, was in a pitiable state. Poaching, smuggling, illegal pit-sawing, illegal cattle grazing and illegal encroachment were common occurrences. The mountain gorillas and other rare animal species like golden and blue monkeys, elephants and giant forest hogs had retreated more and more to the high regions of the Muhavura, Sabinyo and Gahinga volcanoes. Only if protective measures were taken immediately could the area be saved. Klaus-Jürgen Sucker set to work, together with Thomas Butynski and Samson Werikhe, who had paved the way for this project.

He trained rangers, established regular patrols against poachers, pit-sawers and smugglers, and had cattle that grazed in the protected area confiscated. He had shelters put up for the rangers and carried out conservation education among the people living on the borders of the protected area. Work progressed well: poaching in the Mgahinga forest soon stopped, fewer and fewer cattle were driven into the forest for grazing, the pit-sawers did not return and the smugglers henceforth steered clear of the area. The conservation project, which then was still called the Gorilla Game Reserve Conservation Project (GGRCP), had come to life.

The Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Project: One of the Most Successful Conservation Projects in Africa

Mga Hinga National Park ranger camp

The Ugandan authorities soon realized that outstanding conservation work was being done in the Mgahinga forest. In May 1991 the area was gazetted as a National Park. Klaus-Jürgen Sucker became a National Park Warden. In not quite one and a half years, he and his rangers had succeeded in turning a basically unprotected area into one of the best functioning national parks in Africa. In the last year of the project, the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park had the highest density of rangers per km2 of all Ugandan national parks.

In June 1992, it was possible to enlarge the area effectively protected: 1318 farmers, who had illegally been using the so-called Zone 2 of the national park, gave up agriculture and stock farming and left the area. This was done on a voluntary basis and after all the people concerned had held a democratic vote. The 273 families of farmers, who had until then been using Zone 2, received financial compensation. This resettlement project, which addresses both the needs of people and of nature, has often been taken as an example for similar projects in other national parks. Plans were made to reforest Zone 2, a deforested area of 10 km2. For the first time in the history of mountain gorilla conservation, it was possible to enlarge their habitat. This was cause for great hope.

The following facts give a rough idea of Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's achievements in his much too brief period of activity in the Mgahinga forest: almost 7000 animal traps were confiscated and destroyed; a stop was put to the destruction of forest, smuggling and the illegal grazing of cattle; many animal and plant species that had only survived in the forest could recolonize areas formerly inhabited by people; ecotourism and environmentally-friendly gorilla tourism were successfully established; and, finally, approximately 1500 jobs were created, jobs that were well paid compared to local rates, for example as rangers, gorilla trackers and porters, in the National Park Office or when the border of the national park was demarcated.

The Animals Take Back their Own

These conservation measures had an immediate impact on the animals in the area. The number of mountain gorillas that were observed in the Mgahinga forest increased from 25 to 45 and they stayed there more often. For the first time in more than 40 years, a group of gorillas spent the whole year in the Mgahinga forest. The number of other animals like buffalos and forest elephants also increased and they expanded their activities into areas where they had not been seen for years. Thus the risk of the mountain gorillas' extinction became somewhat smaller during these 5 years.

Nature Conservation with (Unforeseen) Consequences

Friends of the mountain gorillas live dangerously. At the end of 1985, Dian Fossey, the famous gorilla researcher, was found murdered at the Karisoke Research Station in the Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda. The murderers were never apprehended. From the very beginning, Klaus- Jürgen Sucker was aware of the high degree of personal risk. However, he was ready to go his own way and to accept the risk, in order to secure the survival of the mountain gorillas. The most striking, if relatively harmless effect that a life dedicated to nature at such high stakes had was that the 1.96 m conservationist's blond hair turned silvery grey - just like in an adult mountain gorilla male, the "silverback".

Naturally he was unpopular with poachers and smugglers from the start. However, this threat was relatively harmless, compared to one from a completely different direction. As early as the first year of the project, the first temporary project station was attacked by a small unit of armed persons. However, Klaus- Jürgen Sucker could not be intimidated even by a cocked Kalashnikov being aimed at him. He only said: "You go ahead and shoot", instead of surrendering his papers, as he was ordered to. The shot was not fired.

Sustainable Users versus Nature Conservationists

In 1993 a new threat emerged from a direction nobody would have thought possible. CARE, a US developmental aid organisation, planned projects for the multiple-use of the Mgahinga forest. Developmental aid workers, who were under pressure to make a move after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, wanted to prove that sustainable use projects were feasible. However, this means that collectors of honey and herbs, cutters of bamboo and other user groups would be allowed to enter the park without controls in order to pursue their allegedly traditional and non-destructive forest use.

Together with Uganda National Parks and international scientists, Klaus-Jürgen Sucker opposed these plans which would have resulted in a catastrophe for the fauna and flora. With only 35 km2, of which 10 km2 are severely degraded (Zone 2), this park is highly susceptible to disturbance. Any form of so-called sustainable use, except controlled ecotourism with a small number of visitors, could lead, for example, to the mountain gorillas' and other animals' retreating back to the mountains. The first of CARE's sustainable use trials had already had disastrous effects: when people cut bamboo roots in the Mgahinga forest, a group of mountain gorillas with a newborn was disturbed so thoroughly that they left the area and did not settle down for days. The conflict between the sustainable users and the conservationist had begun.

The conflict between the leaders of the CARE project DTC (Development Through Conservation), Philip Franks and Rob Wild, was carried out with unequal means: Klaus-Jürgen Sucker tried to convince them and used facts to substantiate his opposition to the risky experiments with new and untested concepts of sustainable use in one of the last reserves for mountain gorillas. CARE/DTC, however, tried to use the miracle weapon money to silence the critical voice of the conservationist.

During many meetings DTC promised the inhabitants of the park's surroundings that the DTC project would improve their conditions of living. But up to now nothing has changed. The first aim, which was to introduce agroforestry in the surroundings of the park, was not realized. The farmers only received some bamboo rhizomes from the core area of the park, which had been removed without any regard to the mountain gorillas. The most important problem was that CARE was not willing to cooperate with the established conservation project. Instead of striving for fruitful cooperation, it became increasingly apparent that DTC was trying to take over the conservation project and become the sole organization working in Mgahinga Park.

Klaus-Jürgen Sucker was convinced that humans must not use everything for their own purposes. When the survival of species is at stake, the interests of people must take second place. He stood a chance against the cocked Kalashnikov, but not against the political and financial power of big organizations.

The End

For reasons unknown to date, Uganda National Parks transferred Klaus-Jürgen Sucker to another national park at short notice. He was to leave Mgahinga forest by August 1994. On June 16, he returned from Kampala to his house in Kisoro, after he had tried in vain to find out the reasons for his transfer. During his enquiries in Kampala he received clear warnings that his life was in danger in southwestern Uganda, but he was not able to learn more about the concrete background to this threat.

After he arrived in Kisoro, he started packing his things and made preparations to hand the project over to the park warden. He was found dead on June 20, with a noose around his neck and his feet on the floor. The other end of the bright red rope was attached to the window bars. On the table in front of him were the remains of his last meal, and packed boxes were everywhere in the house. Both the Ugandan and German authorities were quick to mention suicide committed by a man who was deeply disappointed by his transfer. However, there are too many circumstances that hint to murder. Why were he and his partner shadowed during the last few weeks before his death?

Various groups, especially CARE, had been waiting for a suitable opportunity to get rid of the disagreeable conservationist forever. Klaus-Jürgen Sucker wanted to start a family last year; there is no farewell letter. As concerns his job, he had definite plans for his work in other Ugandan national parks. Many questions remain open, too many. Like the unsolved and mysterious death of Dian Fossey, the death of Klaus-Jürgen Sucker may never be solved either. In our next issue we will publish a detailed report on the strange activities of CARE/DTC in the conservation work of southwestern Uganda, and we will write about the involvement of the CARE project leaders Philip Franks and Rob Wild in the death of Klaus-Jürgen Sucker.

Fortunately, there are still people who are ready to risk their life for the survival of animal species. Klaus-Jürgen Sucker was one of them. We, his friends, and everybody who knew him, are shocked by his cruel death. Not only have we lost an old and good friend, but also a wonderful, selfless idealist who applied his whole strength and his charismatic personality to the protection and the survival of the "gentle giants". He was a rare example of a determined and courageous nature conservationist. His death leaves a gap which cannot be filled. Another devoted protector of the mountain gorillas has died.

What Remains?

What remains is to carry on as Klaus-Jürgen Sucker would have done. The rangers have carried on with conservation work in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park according to his ideas. They were convinced that somebody from Germany would eventually come and tell them how the project would be continued. The local peoples' attitude towards the park is altogether positive, and they readily accept the conservation project.

Although CARE has made many promises to the local population - e.g. takeover of the park, higher wages for the rangers, vehicles - nothing has happened; since the death of Klaus-Jürgen Sucker only one representative of CARE has visited the headquarters of the national park briefly. Had the rangers not been so well trained by Klaus-Jürgen Sucker and had they not trusted in further support from Germany, the conservation work in the park would have stopped completely. The local people feel deceived by the American aid organization.Therefore, they happily welcomed Karl-Heinz Kohnen and Ulrich Karlowski of the BRD board of directors when they visited the project in November 1994 and announced the further support of the park. The two BRD-representatives also met Dr. Eric Edroma, the director of Uganda National Parks, in Kampala, as well as representatives of several organizations, to discuss the possibilities for a reestablishment of the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Project.

We must not allow Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's highly successful conservation work made on behalf of the mountain gorillas and their forest to be in vain. The Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe wants to continue his legacy in the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park according to his concept. Our friend has died, but the ideals for which he lived and fought have not. In November 1994 Karl-Heinz Kohnen and Ulrich Karlowski tried to assess the situation and to find out how the project might continue. In lengthy negotiations with the Ugandan authorities and in spite of the uncompromising resistance of CARE and their supporters, USAID, they agreed on the following points among others:

  1. The multiple-use project laid down in the management plan for the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park will be studied by an acknowledged gorilla specialist as soon as possible, in order to determine the project's effects on the gorillas and their habitat. The recommendations in this report shall be included in the management plan.
  2. A gorilla specialist who will be chosen and supported by German conservation organizations will start as the new project leader in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park via the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation. One result of the involvement of this institute is that the project will not be under the influence of CARE and USAID.
  3. German conservation organizations are to take over the activities in the park that have been planned by CARE/DTC. This is an essential prerequisite for a continuation of the work that Klaus-Jürgen Sucker started: CARE/DTC must not influence the work in the park.
  4. A reforestation project for the degraded Zone 2 that had been initiated by Klaus-Jürgen Sucker can be carried out as planned.

The results of the negotiations were accepted by all German conservation organizations involved. The responsible Ugandan authorities will discuss the project proposal and decide on it. By modifying the management plan, the legal prerequisites for the re-establishment of the project are to be established. It was emphasized that a large-scale support from Germany for the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is only possible, if the above points are stipulated in the management plan.

Ulrich Karlowski and Karl-Heinz Kohnen


Nov. 94; Ulrich Karlowski

The Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Should Live on
Gorilla Journal 2/1994