The global arm of the wildlife charity WWF has rejected allegations that it attempted to cover up an investigation into allegations of rape and torture committed by wildlife rangers it funds.
A story published on the Buzzfeed News website today claimed that a draft report on alleged human rights violations by WWF-funded rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo had been kept "under wraps" by the charity.
The report, which was leaked to Buzzfeed, contained allegations that four women, two of whom were pregnant, had been gang-raped by Salonga National Park rangers and that one of the women had miscarried as a result. It also alleged that a man had been killed by the rangers and others tortured.
The rangers are funded by WWF but not directly employed by the charity, according to Buzzfeed.
The Buzzfeed article alleged that WWF asked those to whom it showed the report to treat it in a "non-public fashion".
In a statement on the charity’s website, WWF said it had launched an investigation in June 2018, alongside the Congolese government, into allegations of violent crimes in Salonga National Park.
Based on the findings of the investigation, it said the six cases that were investigated were referred to the Auditeur militaire, which is the relevant authority to initiate legal proceedings in the DRC, "without delay".
It added that all rangers suspected to have been involved in the incidents had been suspended pending prosecution, at WWF’s suggestion.
The statement said an additional independent investigation would take place in August to further examine allegations raised recently by Rainforest UK, the NGO that first made WWF aware of the original allegations.
It added: "Amongst other things, the report has not been made public out of concern for the health and safety of the victims and the victims’ communities and in order not to interfere with due process, including criminal investigations against alleged perpetrators.
"A draft of the report was shared with the donors to the project and was offered to Rainforest UK on a confidential basis."
WWF said it had "also advocated in the strongest terms and at the highest level with the Democratic Republic of Congo authorities to advance the judicial process and bring all alleged perpetrators to justice" at a meeting in Kinshasa in May 2019 between the director generals of WWF International, the DRC government’s l’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature and its interim minister for environment and sustainable development.
During the meeting, the WWF said, it had also been agreed that a new code of conduct would be implemented and signed by all employees and the complaints process in Salonga would be improved and expanded.
In March, WWF said it would commission an independent review after a Buzzfeed article alleged wildlife rangers the charity funded in Asia and Africa had been responsible for the torture and murder of local people.
This week, WWF said it had shared the results of the Salonga investigation with the independent review panel and the findings would help to inform its global environmental and social safeguards framework.
"WWF does not tolerate human rights abuses, and we are deeply concerned for those affected by alleged abuse," its statement said.
"Collaborating with local communities and respecting human rights are core principles of our work.
"WWF works in extremely challenging geographies and social contexts. We are continuously strengthening our ways of working, with the aim of increasing protection of people’s rights and better ensuring their safety, wherever we operate around the world."