But last Friday rangers who had been monitoring gorillas from a post inside the park had to flee when the rebels reportedly tried to force them to become combatants.
Rebel leader Nkunda, who is an ethnic Tutsi, maintains that the government is collaborating with ethnic Hutu rebels hiding in the DRC who are accused of involvement in the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda.
On September 3 the rebels surrounded two ranger stations inside Virunga. The men seized rifles and communications equipment and forced park workers and their families to evacuate.
Since then the rebels have consolidated their grip on the park, conservationists say.
"The army seems to be weakening vis-à-vis the rebels—and this does not bode well for the gorilla sector at all," said Samantha Newport, a spokesperson for WildlifeDirect, an environmental group that supports the DRC rangers.
Fighting for Control
Conservationists said control of the park is important for the rebels.
"The gorilla sector is a key strategic point in this conflict. The rebels want to control it and have access to neighboring countries to replenish their materials and equipment," said Emmanuel de Merode, head of WildlifeDirect.
"The mountain gorillas are stuck right in the middle."
At least ten gorillas have been killed in Virunga this year, and some of the deaths have been blamed on the rebels.
The worst attack occurred on July 22 when five gorillas, including a silverback, were shot dead execution-style.
That attack was linked to the burgeoning charcoal trade in the park. (Read "Congo Gorilla Killings Fueled by Illegal Charcoal Trade" [August 16, 2007].)
In September a dead infant female was found in the hands of alleged traffickers who are now facing judicial procedures in the city of Goma, just south of Virunga.
Newport said there is a strong possibility that the rebels may soon cut off the road between Goma and park headquarters at Rumangabo, thereby totally isolating the 34 rangers there.
The rangers have removed all valuable tracking equipment from Rumangabo in case the clashes reach the area.
One ranger also died this week in a car accident.
The man was coming back with his colleagues from an anti-charcoal burning patrol when he fell out of the pick-up truck they were riding in. He was taken to a hospital, but later died from brain damage.
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