for National Geographic News
In early May thousands of people poured across the border from Rwanda into Virunga National Park in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Almost immediately they started to slash and burn their way through some of Africa's most pristine rain forest.
The illegal settlers, allegedly paid by Rwandan land speculators, clear-cut the forest and turned it into agricultural land. In less than a month, they destroyed more than 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) of prime habitat for one of the world's most critically endangered species, the mountain gorilla.
The squatters have been driven out, for now. But conservationists fear their return. In the hinterland of eastern Congo, where tensions between Rwanda and Congo have erupted in sporadic fighting in recent months, lawlessness rules. Deforestation is rampant, as militias and poachers roam virtually unchecked through national parks.
"With the resumption of armed conflict, the last month has been fairly catastrophic for the conservation effort in Congo," said Emmanuel de Merode, coordinator for the European Commission Development Program in Goma in eastern Congo.
Virunga is one of Africa's oldest national parks and was popularized by the movie Gorillas in the Mist. To protect the park, conservationists are now building a wall around a part of the UN World Heritage site to stop settlers from entering with their cattle, and to deter wild animals from leaving.
The Congo is struggling to overcome a five-year civil war that left more than 2.5 million people dead in combat or through disease and malnutrition. Recent clashes between the Congolese Army and dissident troops backed by Rwanda have prompted fears that a one-year-old peace accord may collapse.
For years rebel groups and government troops have used the Congo's natural richesdiamonds, gold, timber, ivory, cobalt, and coltan (a mineral used in computer chips and cell-phone batteries)to fund their wars.
"The Democratic Republic of Congo has been unstable and war-torn for the last decade, with disastrous consequences for conservation and biodiversity in many parts of the country," said Karen Laurenson with the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Serengeti, Tanzania.
The illegal settlers in Virunga, estimated at 6,000, were seen being trucked in from Rwanda and ordered by Rwandan military commanders to cut down the forest in the Mikeno sector of the park. Cattle were later introduced. Each person was allegedly paid the equivalent of one U.S. dollar a day for the work.
Officially, the operation was a security precaution to prevent infiltrations of militia groups into Rwanda from the Congo. But conservationists maintain the real reason was financial, with powerful Rwandan businessmen selling plots in the park for agricultural use.
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