Some Congo Troops Leave Troubled Wildlife Park

Zoe Alsop in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
September 5, 2008
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].)

The Deal

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.

"This is one of the biggest clashes we have since the peace agreement signing, and it is very worrying," said Sylvie van den Wildenberg, spokesperson for the United Nations Mission in Congo.

"We are doing everything we can to get everybody back on track because if we put an end to this progress, the only option is to go back to war."

Disease Threat

Some of the heaviest fighting took place in Virunga's southern gorilla sector, crowding the animals into tense proximity with each other and an influx of militiamen.

"Heavy shelling and exchanges of fire between the government troops and the rebels in the immediate vicinity of the gorillas poses an immediate threat to their safety," said Robert Muir, representative for the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Virunga.

It's possible most gorillas fled the combat zones, Muir added. But, in fleeing human conflict, transient gorilla families often wind up trespassing on the territory of other gorillas and inciting conflicts of their own, which can result in serious injury.

The growing population of human fighters in the gorilla range also means more exposure to human diseases, which could decimate the endangered apes.

"The gorilla sector is saturated with [Laurent] Nkunda's troops," Muir said, referring to the Congo-based commander of the Tutsi rebel group.

"They are present in high numbers and there is an increased chance of transmitting … diseases to the gorillas," he said. "The common cold or flu could have a disastrous impact on the mountain gorillas. It could even wipe them out completely."

Not a Target This Time

In 2007 a vast network that turns Virunga's old-growth trees into an illegal charcoal market held the park's gorillas hostage, executing seven of the apes.

The gorillas are not the focus of the current violence, however.

"They have been targeted before, but this was by those involved in the illegal charcoal trade," Muir said. "The current fighting is political … ."

(Related: "Congo Gorilla Killings Fueled by Illegal Charcoal Trade" [August 16, 2007].)

Even as fighting continued in the park's southern sector on Thursday and Friday, there was hope that in the long-term fighters will feel pressure to follow the army's example as it withdrew from Rwindi.

"This is a great measure taken by the government and also a courageous one," said the UN's van den Wildenberg.

"The government has shown that they want to preserve the park's resources," he said. "Now what we hope is that [other armed groups] all go out of there."

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