for National Geographic News
The Democratic Republic of the Congo's wildlife authority and army negotiated a plan this week that moved more than a thousand soldiers and their families from the heart of Africa's oldest and most threatened national park.
The action is a glint of hope for conservationists trying to preserve Virunga National Park, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet and home to half of the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas. (Learn more about the Virunga gorillas.)
The agreement comes at a grim time for eastern Congo, where more than a decade of war has left at least five million people dead and allowed an array of armed groups to pillage the park's dense forests.
"Demilitarizing Virunga National Park remains our greatest and most difficult challenge," said newly appointed park director Emmanuel de Merode.
"The Congolese National Army has taken the first step, which represents a major breakthrough at a time when the threats to the park have never been greater," he added.
(Related: "Belgian Named New Warden of Troubled Gorilla Park" [August 7, 2008].)
As part of the deal, about six thousand people left Rwindi Post in the park's central sector.
Wildlife officials say the move will help rangers do their jobs and could set a precedent to ease human pressure on a park that tens of thousands of militia members today call home.
"The rangers have to control the poaching, snares, land invasions, and the charcoal [trade], and they really don't have a lot of power or influence over the fighting between armed groups," park spokesperson Samantha Newport said.
The agreement "will allow them to do their job," she said.
Fighting broke out last week between the Congolese army and Tutsi rebels about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Rwindi, a violation of a January peace accord.
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