Rare Gorillas Helpless as Congo Rangers Flee Rebels

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
September 5, 2007
Rangers protecting the rare mountain gorillas in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park have been forced to evacuate their guard posts following several days of fierce clashes between the Congolese military and rebels in the area.

Conservationists say they fear for the safety of the gorilla population, which is now completely unprotected.

Nine gorillas living in the troubled park have been killed this year. At least some of the deaths have been blamed on the same rebels who have now taken over large swaths of the reserve.

There are an estimated 700 wild mountain gorillas remaining worldwide. More than half live in Virunga.

"There are still no rangers whatsoever in the [gorilla] sector [of the park], so no monitoring or tracking of gorillas is going on," said Norbert Mushenzi, the park official in charge of the southern sector of Virunga—the park's only gorilla habitat.

"This is very, very serious. We must be able to protect these animals, and at the moment we absolutely cannot."

Overrun by Rebels

Rebels loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda on Monday surrounded two ranger stations inside Virunga. The men seized rifles and communications equipment and forced park workers and their families to evacuate.

Fearing imminent attack, rangers fled a third post, Bukima—the gorilla-monitoring camp.

Since then rebels have overrun Bukima, according to officials of WildlifeDirect, a ranger-supporting conservation group based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kenya (Africa map).

"The situation at Bukima looks like it may calm today, and as soon as it does I will send trackers in to assess the situation of the gorillas," Mushenzi told National Geographic News on Wednesday.

Virunga National Park straddles the border of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. The area has recently seen heavy clashes between the Congolese military and Nkunda's troops, who are estimated to number about 8,000.

Nkunda, who is ethnic Tutsi, reportedly entered the park in pursuit of Rwandan Hutu rebels, who may be hiding there.

The rebel leader maintains that the Congolese government is collaborating with the Hutu-led FDLR (the French initials for Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda). The FDLR is accused of involvement in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda.

According to the United Nations, some 10,000 refugees have fled into Uganda following the latest fighting.

The UN has about 17,000 peacekeepers in the DRC, the largest such force in the world.

Enormous Peril

Amid the threat of poachers and armed militia groups, rangers in Virunga have struggled to protect the gorillas.

More than 120 guards have been killed in the last ten years.

On Thursday last week a ranger was shot and killed in an attack on patrol north of the town of Rutshuru, north of the city of Goma (DRC map).

Meanwhile, nine gorillas have been killed this year. Two gorillas are still missing.

The worst attack occurred on July 22, when five gorillas, including a silverback, were killed execution style. (Watch video report on gorilla executions.)

While conservationists link that massacre to the burgeoning illegal charcoal trade in the park, the killings of two lone males in January were widely attributed to General Nkunda's troops. (Read "Mountain Gorillas Eaten by Congolese Rebels". Warning: graphic picture.)

After the January killings, Nkunda met with park officials, pledging to make sure his men did not kill any more gorillas.

Emmanuel de Merode, the director of Wildlife Direct, says he does not believe the rebels are specifically targeting the gorillas. But he says the apes face enormous peril, as do the rangers.

"The gorillas happen to live in one of the worst areas of the world for conflict that is strategically important for armed groups," he said in a statement.

"We fear for the safety of these endangered creatures."

Conservationists received further bad news this weekend when the infant of Bilali, the only female from the Munyaga family of gorillas, was found dead.

The death of the baby gorilla is believed to be linked to fighting between two competing male gorillas.

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