Rare Gorillas at Risk as Rebels Seize Congo Park

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 11, 2007
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.

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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