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Endangered Gorillas "Held Hostage" by Rebels in Africa Park

Nick Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
May 23, 2007
 
African rebels killed a wildlife officer and wounded three people on Sunday in attacks on three ranger posts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park.

Now the Mai Mai rebels say they will kill mountain gorillas in the park if rangers try to retaliate, according to the conservation group Wildlife Direct, based in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

"The Mai Mai are doing everything to sabotage the good intentions of well-intentioned conservationists," Virunga National Park Director Norbert Mushenzi said in a statement.

"This was an unprovoked attack on our rangers and other wildlife officers who protect Virunga's wildlife. And the Mai Mai said that if we retaliate, they will kill all the gorillas in this area."

The World Conservation Union lists mountain gorillas as critically endangered, meaning they face a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future.

Mai Mai Threat

Despite the Mai Mai warning, the DRC government has deployed two of its elite ranger units to chase the militia.

The Mai Mai movement first began as a peasant uprising in the 1960s.

It would not be the first time that the Mai Mai have hunted down park animals.

They slaughtered hundreds of hippopotamuses last year to bring international attention to their movement.

The Mai Mai are also suspected of killing and eating at least two mountain gorillas in January. Later that month they agreed to stop targeting the gorillas, but the hippo killings continue, scientists say.

According to the online conservation project WildlifeDirect, 200 Mai Mai rebels commanded by a man known as Jackson attacked the three posts in the Mount Tshiaberimu gorilla sector in the early hours of May 20.

In addition to with the casualties, the guerrillas took 13 people hostage but eventually released them.

The 2-million-acre (79,000-hectare) park is a UN World Heritage site and is home to diverse habitats, including swamps, snowfields, and volcanoes. Its most famous inhabitants are its mountain gorillas.

Over a hundred rangers have been slain in recent years trying to protect wildlife there.

Johannes Refisch of the UN-led Great Apes Survival Project said some 350 gorillas remain in Virunga.

He said it is impossible to say what was behind the latest attack—or if the Mai Mai were ultimately responsible—because the park is home to a host of competing factions.

Among those factions: former Rwandan military officers implicated in the 1994 genocide, Mai Mai rebels, and smaller armed groups, all vying for power and resources.

"It's sometimes quite difficult to see what really triggered the violence," Refisch said. "The situation is very fragile."

Violence Spreading

The latest attack was especially troubling, because it was in the park's northern sector.

Previous attacks had been limited to the south, said Noelle Kumpel, program manager of the bush-meat and forest conservation program at the Zoological Society of London. (Bush meat is the flesh of wild animals.)

The northern sector has been "so much more secure than the southern sector," Kumpel said. "Things seemed to be getting better, and this is a bit of a setback.

"Things have gotten worse again."

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