for National Geographic News
Heavy fighting continues to rage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) troubled Virunga National Park, one of the last remaining homes for rare mountain gorillas.
On Sunday rebels loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda—who have been clashing with DRC military forces in the area since September 3—took control of the park's gorilla sector.
The fighting has sparked further fears for the safety of the critically endangered mountain gorillas, which have been left largely unprotected for more than a month, ever since the clashes forced rangers to evacuate the park.
Today the fighting between rebels and the Congolese army heated up near Bukima, the park's main gorilla monitoring station.
Rangers could also hear the exchange of heavy gunfire near park headquarters at Rumangabo, according to Norbert Mushenzi, director of Virunga's gorilla sector for the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).
"Rangers and local inhabitants are fleeing from all around the park, and the mountain gorillas are totally unprotected," Mushenzi said.
"This whole situation is precarious and frustrating."
Rebels vs. Rangers
About 700 wild mountain gorillas remain in the world, roughly 380 of which live in the Virunga Volcanoes Conservation Area shared by the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda.
Of these, about 120 are found in the DRC.
But rangers there have been able to track only one family of gorillas since the fighting started five weeks ago, and they have yet to account for 54 of the region's 72 habituated gorillas.
Until last week the situation had appeared to be calming, and rangers were hoping to re-enter the sector to track the gorillas.
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