How does dressing up in a really bad gorilla costume help to save endangered mountain gorillas? Well, it's not actually the costume itself that's important; it's what the man inside the costume is also carrying.

Take a look at the photo to the left. In one hand, the costumed gorilla holds an energy-efficient stove. In the other, he carries a bag of biomass briquettes. Put together (without the gorilla suit of course), these two items could provide safe, inexpensive, environmentally friendly fuel for heating and cooking to the 250,000 refugees currently crowding around Virunga National Park as they flee violence from the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Even before the conflict, which flared up about five months ago, the area around Virunga was home to millions of people, only a tiny percentage of whom had access to electricity. The main sources of energy in the region are wood and charcoal, both of which tend to come from the park itself. Demand for charcoal—made by illegally burning trees—was already so high before the refugees came to the region that park rangers and critically endangered mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) were frequently slain if they got in the way. A few years ago Virunga called charcoal "the single biggest threat to the mountain gorillas and other flora and fauna in the park." About half of the world's 720 mountain gorillas live in Virunga.

In 2009 the Africa Conservation Fund proposed a solution: tiny, energy-efficient stoves that would burn biomass briquettes made from sawdust, rice husks, coffee and tea residues, sorghum, leaves and grass—all renewable resources. In addition to not being made from park trees, a 50-kilogram sack of fuel briquettes costs just $12, compared with $25 for the same amount of charcoal, which is a significant savings for cash-strapped residents. Meanwhile, creating them creates employment opportunities in a region where few others exist.

Unfortunately, convincing people to break tradition and use the biomass briquettes has been an uphill challenge. (You can read my previous reports on this here and here.) Over the past three years the team behind the program has refined their process, improved their packaging and added another alternative fuel source—reclaimed charcoal called chardust fireballs—but significant progress is still required.

Despite the hurdles, the rangers at Virunga have not given up trying to attract new converts to the biomass briquette stoves. Last week Balemba Balagizi, who manages the briquette program, donned the gorilla costume and took to the streets of one refugee community to extol the benefits of biomass and to put a semi-human face on the victims of the charcoal trade. Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode wrote on the official Virunga blog last week that it's too early to know if the gorilla guerrilla marketing approach will work, but "it did bring a few smiles to otherwise terribly stressed families."

Guerrilla marketing is a great way to get a message out there, and I hope that this bit of whimsy in the middle of an awful situation does at least a little bit of good. Unfortunately, the region is saturated by real guerillas and at least nine militia groups that kill people and animals every day. The situation in the Congo is undoubtedly going to get worse before it gets better, but if refugees can save a few dollars when buying cooking fuel and protect wildlife in the process, the park may have a brighter future ahead.

Photo: Virunga National Park