for National Geographic News
Rangers protecting the rare mountain gorillas in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park have been forced to evacuate their guard posts following several days of fierce clashes between the Congolese military and rebels in the area.
Conservationists say they fear for the safety of the gorilla population, which is now completely unprotected.
Nine gorillas living in the troubled park have been killed this year. At least some of the deaths have been blamed on the same rebels who have now taken over large swaths of the reserve.
There are an estimated 700 wild mountain gorillas remaining worldwide. More than half live in Virunga.
"There are still no rangers whatsoever in the [gorilla] sector [of the park], so no monitoring or tracking of gorillas is going on," said Norbert Mushenzi, the park official in charge of the southern sector of Virunga—the park's only gorilla habitat.
"This is very, very serious. We must be able to protect these animals, and at the moment we absolutely cannot."
Overrun by Rebels
Rebels loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda on Monday surrounded two ranger stations inside Virunga. The men seized rifles and communications equipment and forced park workers and their families to evacuate.
Fearing imminent attack, rangers fled a third post, Bukima—the gorilla-monitoring camp.
Since then rebels have overrun Bukima, according to officials of WildlifeDirect, a ranger-supporting conservation group based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kenya (Africa map).
"The situation at Bukima looks like it may calm today, and as soon as it does I will send trackers in to assess the situation of the gorillas," Mushenzi told National Geographic News on Wednesday.
Virunga National Park straddles the border of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. The area has recently seen heavy clashes between the Congolese military and Nkunda's troops, who are estimated to number about 8,000.
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