The slaughter deeply shocked the rangers and conservationists who work to protect the endangered gorillas in a park that has been ravaged by civil strife for years.
"This is a disaster," said Emmanuel de Merode, director of WildlifeDirect, a conservation group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya that supports the rangers working in Virunga.
Park staff and WildlifeDirect officials stationed in Virunga's Bukima camp said they heard gunshots coming from inside the dense forest around 8 p.m. on Sunday.
When the rangers ventured into the forest on Monday morning, they found the three female gorillas.
"The gorillas were all quite close together. They had all been shot," de Merode said.
In addition to Safari, another dead female was the mother of a two-year-old. The third gorilla killed was pregnant.
It was not until the following day that rangers found the silverback Senkekwe, the leader of the so-called Rugendo family of 12 individuals.
Another two gorillas from the family are reportedly missing, their fate unknown.
The Rugendo family is one of several groups of gorillas that live on the Congo side of the sprawling Virunga National Park, which straddles the border of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, and are visited from the Bukima camp (see Africa map).
More than half of the gorillas' population, estimated at about 700, is found in Virunga. The rest live in forests in Rwanda and Uganda.
The park lies in the heart of one of the most troubled regions of Africa.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is struggling to emerge from a civil war that has left an estimated four million people dead and dates back to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
Today the area is home to a vast array of rebel militias, government soldiers, foreign troops, and villagers who are unsympathetic to the rangers protecting the park. Poaching remains a major problem.
Early this year two silverback gorillas were killed within the span of two days in the same area as where the latest killings occurred. The incident sparked an international outcry of support for the embattled gorillas.
Those apes appeared to have been butchered for their meat. One of them had had his dismembered body dumped in a latrine.
Act of Sabotage
Last month a female gorilla from the Kabirizi family was found shot to death in the park (see a photo of the gorilla's orphaned baby).
Another female from that family has been missing ever since and is presumed to have been killed too.
Sunday's "execution-style" killing of the gorillas was identical to the killing last month, de Merode said.
He believes the slaughter was meant to send a chilling message to the rangers to get out of the park.
"We don't think it was the villagers who did it," he said. "This was deliberate an act of sabotage."
De Merode said there is evidence from the site of the killings linking the incident to the area's lucrative charcoal trade.
Apparently the killers had tried to burn one of the bodies.
Virtually all the charcoal supplied to nearby Goma—worth an estimated U.S. $30 million a year—is made from wood harvested illegally inside Virunga National Park, he said.
"Last year Rwanda put a ban on any charcoal production within Rwanda," de Merode said.
"This means that whole country's charcoal is largely supplied from Congo," he added. "This has put a lot of pressure on the park."
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