for National Geographic News
Congolese authorities have arrested a senior park official in connection to the recent execution-style killings of several mountain gorillas, a move that conservationists have praised as a crucial step toward saving the rare primates.
Honore Mashagiro, the former chief of the park, was arrested earlier this month at his home in Goma in eastern Congo.
He appeared in court last week, charged with the deaths of gorillas and illegal charcoal burning, according to the UN-supported radio station Okapi via the Reuters news service.
Last Gorilla Habitat
The 2-million-acre (800,000-hectare) Virunga, a UN World Heritage Site, is home to about half the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas.
Since the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, the park's dense forests have become a battleground and refuge for myriad rebel groups. The park is also under threat by traders who destroy its forests to make cooking charcoal, conservationists say.
Officials with the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN), who had employed Mashagiro, suspect that he was involved in the eastern Congo charcoal trade, which is worth more than 20 million U.S. dollars a year and is threatening the park's resources.
Conservationists say that the gorilla killings in Virunga last year were meant to be a message to rangers who have sought to crack down on the trade.
"What happened in a nutshell was that the rangers started to quite effectively protect the gorillas and the forest as gorilla habitat and that meant less charcoal was coming out," said Emmanuel de Merode, director of the Nairobi-based conservation group WildlifeDirect.
"So to undermine their efforts they started killing gorillas. If they kill all the gorillas, there's no reason to protect the forest."
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