For a Fist Full of Dollars ... the Mysterious Death of the Gorilla Conservationist Klaus-Jürgen Sucker

Although this final report should be viewed with consideration to the fact that my involvement in the MGNP (Mgahinga Gorilla National Park) was prematurely terminated, the goals of the project, i.e. to establish a functioning national park and to improve the protection of the local flora and fauna, were successfully met. To install another person to continue the project is unrealistic and of high risk, particularly in view of the possible motives for my transfer. Unfortunately, the remaining time available to me before my transfer on August 1, 1994, does not permit me to travel to Germany right now to personally inform you of the current situation. I will undertake everything in my power to personally get in touch with you as soon as possible.
These are Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's concluding lines in his final letter to the Deutscher Tierschutzbund dated June 15. The letter arrived after his death.

Never-ending Investigations?

In the 2/1994 issue of the Gorilla Journal, we wrote about his tragic death and its possible background. Even today, almost a year later, the circumstances leading to his death remain unclear. For each question answered, three new ones arise. The Office of the District Attorney in Bielefeld has not concluded its judicial inquiry, as it still awaits results from investigations in Uganda. The autopsy, which was performed under German standards, thereby neglecting African conditions, led to the following, carefully worded result:
The results of the autopsy, histological preparations and chemo-toxicological analyses do not permit any other interpretation except that Mr. Sucker died by hanging...The situation in which the deceased body was found and the pathological-anatomical evidence do not exclude suicide by hanging.
Ultimately, he died of suffocation.

In November 1994, Karl-Heinz Kohnen and I visited Uganda for nearly four weeks. During our stay, we hoped to find possible explanations for Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's death and to evaluate the feasibility of continuing his work in MGNP. Most of our findings are based on confidential information and personal communications. To protect our informants, the following assessment of the circumstances leading to his death is based on excerpts from his diary and letters, and in addition, on the results of our own investigation which can be published without consequences for those who provided the information.

Excerpts from a Dead Man's Diary

Already the 17th MGNP project report for the period January 1 through March 31, 1994, provides the following, carefully formulated indication of tragic things to come:
... Moreover, it is quite clear, that the Development Through Conservation Project (abbreviated CARE/DTC) could jeopardize the species protection and conservation objectives through questionable utilization of the park's resources and by getting the national park management under control using dubious political methods like favouring certain persons within the national park management.

Diary entry dated March 16, 1994:
The extension of my work permit is prevented by USAID (the main sponsor for CARE/DTC and Uganda National Parks) and Rob Wild (a CARE/DTC employee).

Twelve days later on March 28, Eric Edroma, Director of Uganda National Parks (UNP), the authority that employed Klaus-Jürgen as a park warden, spoke out:
He (Eric Edroma) took me aside and confided that Rob Wild, Rob Clausen (Director of CARE in Uganda) and somebody else had stormed into his office and vehemently protested against the prolongation of my stay. Edroma tried to straighten things out.

Diary entry April 17, 1994:
Philip Franks told Edroma that he feels that I am opposing everything that comes from DTC. The work permit has still not come through.

On May 5, Eric Edroma told Klaus-Jürgen that he was being blackmailed by USAID and CARE: USAID had threatened to withhold any additional funding if Klaus-Jürgen did not leave the MGNP. The authenticity of this information has been confirmed by three independent sources.

Open Letters

The post office box for the MGNP as well as the CARE/DTC headquarters are located in the main post office of Kabale. The fact that Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's letters were intercepted and opened is indicated by his remark on May 8:
My letters are opened (in Kabale).

How and who was able to intercept his outgoing and incoming mail was elucidated during our November investigations. In the post office of Kabale, we were informed that Tony Kirungi, Chief Park Warden of the MGNP and thus Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's counterpart in Uganda, had a second key to the post office box and regularly came to pick up the mail.

How well he made use of his key became evident during a discussion on November 7, 1994, in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Kampala. We had arranged a meeting with Liz Macfie, who is responsible for the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. In the course of our discussion, which naturally also concerned Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's death, Liz Macfie suddenly took out a letter from her pocket and asked if we knew it. It was a copy of a highly confidential letter, solely mailed to two recipients on June 11, 1994: Karl-Heinz Kohnen, who received his copy of the letter, and Klaus-Jürgen Sucker, who never received it. The content of the letter was a detailed strategy for fending off CARE/DTC attacks by employing scientific and political strategies. On the copy which Liz Macfie held in her hand, we saw a remark in handwriting saying "confidential". She told us that everybody at UNP and CARE had a copy of it, before suddenly realizing that one of the recipients was actually sitting right in front of her. Embarassed by her own disclosure, she discretely changed the subject of our conversation while tucking the letter back into her pocket, just as suddenly as it had appeared.

The Pressure Rises

Back to the events in May 1994. Klaus-Jürgen Sucker naturally noticed that the situation had become more and more threatening to him, which is evident from a letter that he wrote to the Deutscher Tierschutzbund on May 18:
It is apparent that the US-American government is placing great effort into trying to control the frontier areas (to Rwanda). The Mgahinga Project is located in one of these frontier areas which supposedly is valued for its potential to control, aid and stabilize the neighbouring country. An attempt by the Americans to persuade the Uganda immigration authority to cancel my work and residence permit has obviously failed. UNP has stressed how important my achievements are to turn a barren protected area into a functioning national park... The pressure on the project, especially by competing organizations, has not lessened. On the contrary, it has been intensified by questionable measures undertaken by CARE/DTC: they promised to the rangers to increase their salary... False rumours have been spread about me. The reason for all this, as I have already mentioned in my previous letter, is surely CARE/DTC's drive for multiple-use of the MGNP. The local population is of course easily mobilized for this... The director (Edroma) visited Kisoro on May 10 to 11, 1994, and had a completely different impression of the situation, compared to what he previously had been told. Witnesses negated the false rumours about me. Yet it is to be feared, that powerful and rich organizations will finally win the battle, whereby common sense and moral obligations will no longer stand in the forefront.

Empty Promises and Dangerous Rumours

Klaus-Jürgen Sucker was wrong about one thing. It was later confirmed that although CARE/DTC had made various kinds of promises they did not actually dispose of the necessary funding in 1994 to keep these promises. When we later confronted them about this, Philip Franks brushed the incidende off by pointing out that these promises should not be taken too seriously. What they really just wanted to say was that, if CARE/DTC would have the saying, then...

However Klaus-Jürgen Sucker was right about something else. Two CARE/DTC employees had spread false rumours about him in order to tarnish his initially untouchable position. Even Philip Johnston, director of CARE-USA, thought it appropriate to spread these rumours in an official document without considering their validity:
The disagreement between DTC and Mr. Sucker related to his approach to park relations with the local communities. This includes a range of issues among which were an illegal extension of the Mgahinga Park boundary, refusal to allow access to water sources near the park boundary, forcing some women to walk up to 10 km daily to collect water, seizure of jerry cans intended for water collection and heavy fines imposed on their owners, and Mr. Sucker's opposition to piloting multiple use, in spite of UNP having approved it as a policy worthy of testing.

While perpetuating these rumours, Philip Johnston failed to note that Klaus-Jürgen Sucker was in no legal position whatsoever to place penalties on anyone, and he therefore never did. Illegal trespassers who attacked the wardens were lawfully handed over to the local police, who consequently also decided which penalties were appropriate. Johnston also failed to note that the multiple- use concept, the initial cause for the argument, was settled with a compromise accepted by all parties. To this date, we are unable to explain why this highest ranking CARE official finds it necessary to falsely attack Klaus-Jürgen, even after his death.

False Hopes

Towards the end of May, things began to speed up. On May 26, Eric Edroma intended to hold a meeting in Kampala to give all parties concerned an opportunity to voice and defend their opinions. On May 25, however, the CARE/DTC representatives notified that they did not intend to attend the meeting. No explanation was given. Since Eric Edroma held the opinion that Klaus-Jürgen Sucker should nonetheless come to Kampala, he started his journey the same day. One day after the scheduled meeting, Edroma proposed a plan for the co-existence of both projects, whereby CARE/DTC would function outside the park's boundaries. His proposal appeared to be the solution to the problem.

Yet, all the discussions and attempts to salvage the project were in vain. Ever since USAID's "blackmail attempt", Klaus-Jürgen Sucker had no chance to continue his work in the MGNP, only he was not aware of it. The scheduled meeting on May 26, which had given him much hope as all those involved with the MGNP were to join forces in finding a solution, was just a diversion.

Philip Franks later commented to us that he and Rob Wild decided against attending the meeting because they had the impression that it should be a trial, and contended that they did not want to justify their plans and projects. That this claim does not necessarily fit the truth, was later confirmed by Jaap Schoorl, a CARE/DTC technical adviser for park management and law enforcement in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. He told us that by May 22 or 23, Eric Edroma had assured CARE/DTC that Klaus-Jürgen was to be transferred. Edroma therefore decided that it was not necessary for the Americans to come to Kampala for the meeting. Jaap Schoorl was not involved in the argument about multiple-use in MGNP. He started his work in June 1994 and was one of the last people Klaus-Jürgen Sucker met in Kisoro before his death.

The Sad Truth

On June 6, he was finally informed about his transfer: from August 1 on, he was expected to work as a Park Warden and Technical Advisor for the Kidepo Valley National Park. But does the transfer of the German biologist suffice to guarantee that the takeover of MGNP can be carried through? What would happen if the German conservation organization would decide to install a new project manager, one who could be equally adamant at protesting against multiple-use of a small gorilla habitat, such as MGNP? And if a person like Klaus-Jürgen Sucker were to stay in the country, would he not be a critical spectator, minutely following everything happening in the park?

Of course nobody can be sure whether these or similar thoughts were occupying the minds of certain persons. However, we do know that Klaus-Jürgen Sucker desperately tried to find out the reasons for his transfer, and to find a way to have it changed. At the same time, he was concerned with finding an alternative efficient job in Uganda.

Regarding his transfer, he was only able to find out that UNP generally resort to transfers when employees are being threatened; and there are several accounts which support the fact that Klaus-Jürgen Sucker was being threatened. At least he was able to clarify the necessary procedures to take over a new project on habituating chimpanzees in Murchison Falls National Park. This would have allowed him to stay in the country, as everyone was well aware of, especially at UNP and CARE. Having returned to Kisoro, he started packing his belongings and officially handed over the Mgahinga Project and all the materials for the project to his assistant, the ranger Sheeba Hanyurwa, on June 19.

Obviously aware that he was in danger in Kisoro, he undertook every precaution during this last weekend to keep his planned departure a secret. Nobody in Kisoro, not even his neighbours with whom he maintained close contact, knew that he planned on finally leaving Kisoro on Monday, June 21, to transport his personal belongings to a rented room in the GTZ headquarters in Kampala. His departure never took place. On June 20, around 11 am, he was found hanging dead in his house in Kisoro.

Many thanks to the GTZ headquarters in Kampala. Shortly after his death, they transported all his personal belongings to Kampala during an adventurous night rescue action. One possession though they were not able to transport: all correspondence between Klaus-Jürgen Sucker and the Deutscher Tierschutzbund that described his difficulties with CARE/DTC had disappeared after his death.


Assuming that the official suicide version is correct - which we now think highly unlikely - then the CARE/DTC employees, the USAID management in Uganda and - thanks to their pressure - also UNP are morally responsible for Klaus-Jürgen Sucker's death. CARE/DTC's motive to attain complete control of the Mgahinga Park seems close at hand. The successful establishment of multiple-use in MGNP not only ascertains employment for the project leaders, but also monetary funds, as CARE/DTC almost solely depends on USAID's support. A mid-term evaluation that has been kept secret so far has shown that DTC's project was not at all proceeding as expected. The fault for this was accredited to Klaus-Jürgen Sucker. Consequently, Rob Wild and Philip Franks put more pressure on him. CARE/DTC needed full control of MGNP to implement multiple-use according to their intentions.

In the Impenetrable Forest, CARE/DTC has already managed to attain control of the conservation measures within the park and started various multiple-use projects. This development in the Ugandan gorilla conservation areas is very critical in the view of species conservation. A developmental aid organization that totally lacks experience in mountain gorilla conservation and that is not even willing to consider the advice of experienced conservationists, has now attained control of the habitat of these threatened primates. The incentive is solely the establishment of projects for multiple-use, although ecologists have warned against this and scientific evidence to support multiple-use is still lacking. A risky experiment is being undertaken in a highly complex and vulnerable ecosystem. The losses that we already can count today (e.g. four dead gorillas in Bwindi) can not be replaced.

Ulrich Karlowski


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