Newsweek’s Sharon Begley and Scott Johnson should get the Pulitzer Prize for last week’s Newsweek cover story, “Slaughter in the Jungle.” It was the most moving story of the year and clearly based on truly intrepid reportage. More importantly, I hope it provokes action to stop this brutal global slaughter of wildlife.

Scott Johnson went into the rainforest in the war-torn Congo, home to much of Africa’s remaining 700 mountain gorillas. Miles from the nearest town, he discovered and recorded the worst massacre of gorillas in more than 25 years.

The rangers found the first corpse less than a hundred yards away, in a grove of vines and crooked thicket. The mammoth gorilla lay on her side, a small pink tongue protruding slightly from her lips. She was pregnant and her breasts were engorged with milk for the baby that now lay dead inside her womb … They have not been killed for their meat or their pelts or their internal organs. In fact, no one is quite sure why they’ve been killed.

Be sure to check out Johnson’s astonishing photos of the gorillas. What makes them so powerful, I think, is that they capture our commonality with our fellow creatures: in life, the gorillas seem inspired by the same needs and emotions as we are; in death, their poses and deep, mournful expressions evoke a crucifixion — in this case, they are sacrifices to human greed, violence, and apathy.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

It’s clear, however, that whatever the facts and the tragedy of this assassination are, the gorillas are looking extinction in the eye because of many of the same threats that are menacing wildlife around the world.

Three years ago some 8,000 Rwandans crossed the border into Virunga looking for pastoral land, and mowed down more than 3,000 acres of prime gorilla habitat in less than three weeks. Earlier this year Tutsi forces loyal to a renegade Congolese general also moved into the park, which houses not only one of the world’s most remarkable collections of biodiversity but gold, coltan, zinc and valuable timber. According to local human-rights workers and renowned paleontologist Richard Leakey, among others, a corrupt mafia of charcoal merchants has recently begun harvesting Virunga’s forests to fuel a $30 million-a-year industry.

It’s an obscene trade-off: the destruction of one of the most majestic animals in the world for a mere $30 million in profits for thugs robbing the world of this natural wonder; and, more fundamentally, depriving these rare, sentient — even loving — beings of life. As Begley points out in her accompanying story, however, the fate of the gorillas is an increasingly common one:

That threat has been escalating over the past decade largely because the opening of forests to logging and mining means that roads connect once impenetrable places to towns … The problem now is that hunting, even of supposedly protected animals, is a global, multimillion-dollar business.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Eating bushmeat “is now a status symbol,” says Thomas Brooks of Conservation International. “It’s not a subsistence issue. It’s not a poverty issue. It’s considered supersexy to eat bushmeat.”…

Smoked monkey carcasses travel from Ghana to New York and London, while gourmets in Hanoi and Guangzhou feast on turtles and pangolins (scaly anteaters) from Indonesia. There is a thriving market for bushmeat among immigrants in Paris, New York, Montreal, Chicago and other points in the African diaspora, with an estimated 13,000 pounds of bushmeat — much of it primates — arriving every month in seven European and North American cities alone. “Hunting and trade have already resulted in widespread local extinctions in Asia and West Africa,” says Bennett. “The world’s wild places are falling silent.”

The article gave me a sense that we are living in an age when the Western model of wildlife extermination and settlement — the same model that nearly extinguished the bison of the American prairie in the 19th century — is now being exported on a global scale. Animals that were thought to be at little or no risk have been decimated in an orgy of bloodlust, greed, and apathy from those who didn’t care enough to stop these attacks. Hundreds of thousands of hippopotamuses have been eliminated as hunters kill them for meat and ivory. Fewer than 3000 pygmy hippos remain; logging roads have brought the hunters to their once protected homes.

Most frustrating of all is how small the profits are from much of this destruction. It’s not like we’re competing against billions of dollars; it’s a $30-million charcoal industry killing the gorillas; $3.6 million a year for bushmeat from a province in Laos; $6 for a baboon.

Extinction is happening on the cheap, but in that cheapness, there is hope: it wouldn’t be too hard for concerned global citizens to come up with the cash to overnight radically alter the economic incentives that are now decimating the world’s wildlife. Perhaps most simply, forests (and their living wildlife) could be given value under international (or national) global warming reduction regimes. Countries and individuals would get financial credit for the enormous amounts of carbon dioxide stored by intact pristine forests — credit that would amount to more than $10,000 per hectare under current carbon prices on the European carbon trading market.

Of course, as I pointed out in this recent New York Times op-ed co-written with Bill Powers: to make that happen, governments will have to allow polluters to get global warming credit for protecting the earth’s forests as carbon sinks (deforestation currently accounts for more than 20 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions — more than China’s total emissions), which would have the enormous side benefit of protecting the wildlife in them from encroaching roads and hunters.

These efforts are gaining speed; even the Bush administration is saying it will put some money towards tropical forest conservation. But with forests and wildlife disappearing so rapidly, it needs to happen far faster if we’re going to save millions of hectares of forests and the creatures (and indigenous people) that make them home (and that act as the lungs of the planet, breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen).

I hope you’re inspired to join me in taking action to actually make this happen. Click here to contact members of Congress and ask them to finance forest conservation to help protect the earth’s vanishing wildlife.