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Rebels Seize Congo Gorilla Park; Hopes Dim for Apes

Nick Wadhams in Nairobi
for National Geographic News
October 27, 2008
 
Rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have overtaken the headquarters of a park that is home to most of the world's last mountain gorillas.






The Sunday takeover by former Congolese army general Laurent Nkunda and his troops forced more than 50 rangers in Virunga National Park to escape into the forest.

Africa's oldest national park, Virunga made headlines in 2007 as the site of several gorilla murders.

The attack has diminished conservationists' hopes of monitoring the great apes that live near the area where fighting between rebels and the Congolese army has broken out. (See photos of the Virunga gorillas in National Geographic magazine.)

The displaced rangers are now trying to make their way to Goma, the regional capital which may be the rebels' ultimate target, according to Virunga park warden Emmanuel de Merode.

"Our priority is to try and guarantee the security of our staff, because they're extremely vulnerable," de Merode told National Geographic News by phone from Goma.

The 53 rangers "have no food, no water, no shelter, and they are in a war zone, with several warring armed groups fighting each other."

Park staff in Goma have been in contact with 12 exhausted and dehydrated rangers, who are dodging rebel bullets as they try to make their way to safety, according to a blog entry on the park's Web site. (Get breaking updates on the situation here.)

"When the rebels started approaching the park station, we thought we were all going to be killed," park ranger Bareke Sekibibi said in a statement issued by Virunga officials. "We are not military combatants, we are park rangers protecting Virunga's wildlife."

(Related: "Inside the Gorilla Wars: Rangers on Risking It All" [June 16, 2008].)

De Merode has been in touch with some of the armed groups and has asked them not to harm the rangers.

Several nongovernmental organizations and conservation groups have evacuated Goma. The Zoological Society of London, a major player in the area, is leaving.

"We'll be moving out of Goma into Rwanda for now," said Alice Henchley, a spokesperson for the Zoological Society of London. "The security of our [staff] is our top priority. It's extremely unstable."

Congolese government forces also appeared to be in full-scale retreat Monday. Army vehicles were heading away from the fighting, the Associated Press reported, and UN spokesperson Michele Bonnardeaux said the latest bouts of violence had displaced thousands of civilians.

Battleground

The area around the park headquarters, in the town of Rumangabo, is called the Mikeno sector. It is thick, hilly jungle that's home to approximately 72 of the roughly 200 mountain gorillas believed to live in Virunga.

The species, listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, consists of only 680 animals living in two isolated populations in DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda.

The Mikeno sector, in eastern DRC, has also become a central battleground in the fight between government forces and Nkunda's army, which he calls the National Congress for the People's Defense (CNDP).

Neighboring Rwanda has maintained a strong influence in eastern Congo ever since Rwandan troops drove out militiamen hiding in DRC after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Nkunda says his CNDP is protecting ethnic Tutsis from Rwanda—who were targeted in the genocide—from militiamen of the Hutu ethnic group.

The general's men were blamed in the killings of ten mountain gorillas in 2007.

(See a time line of Virunga's past.)

First Attack on HQ

Fighting has raged around Rumangabo since August, and in early October several rangers were forced out.

Virunga park staff have been trying to look after families of these rangers, who are living in a makeshift camp in Goma. A cholera outbreak in the last 24 hours has sickened seven people. An estimated 200,000 civilians have also left their homes since violence broke out.

But the rebels have never before attacked park headquarters.

Though their motives for doing so are unknown, Rumangabo is considered a strategic location, because it lies along one of two major access routes to Goma. The area is also home to the second biggest military base in DRC, which Nkunda rebels captured in early October.

The group handed the base back to the Congolese government under pressure from the United Nations, which maintains a massive peacekeeping force in the region.

Looting Fears

The rebels now appear to have their sights on the city of Kibumba, which sits on the other main access road to Goma.

"If Kibumba falls—and it looks [like] it may in the next few hours—that's the last major settlement before Goma," park warden de Merode said. "In a situation like that, our main concern is pillaging by the retreating forces."

Spokespeople for the UN peacekeeping force were not answering phones on Monday afternoon.
 

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