Fatal Attack on Conservationists' Truck in Gorilla Park

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Kemal Saiki, spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping mission in the region, said, "You can have skirmishes and attacks, and it's hard to tell if they're politically motivated or just criminal activity. Are they just looking for something or is it a political statement?"

Bodson said that his organization knew the area was not entirely secure but that officials believed driving was safe. The truck had been traveling between the towns of Lulimbi and Ishasha, where WWF staff were teaching rangers how to use the GPS equipment.

Multiple Militias

The attack highlights the volatility in North Kivu Province, which has become a haven for several armed groups.

Among them are Congolese Army soldiers; Rwandan Hutus believed responsible for the 1994 genocide of Tutsis; guerillas of the Mai Mai movement, which began as a peasant uprising in the 1960s; and Tutsi fighters allied with dissident Congolese general Laurent Nkunda.

Conflict between Nkunda's forces and the Congolese Army continues to kill an estimated 40,000 people each month in eastern Congo. The region also saw two civil wars in the 1990s that are believed to have killed over four million people—more than any other conflict since World War II.

Over 110 rangers have been slain in the last ten years trying to protect wildlife in Virunga, a 2-million-acre (79,000-hectare) UN World Heritage Site. Caught in the middle are the mountain gorillas.

In July of last year, unknown assailants shot and killed five members of the Rugendo gorilla family in what is believed to have been a political statement against the rangers (interactive time line of conflict in Virunga).

(See "Wildlife Park Official Arrested in Gorilla Killings" [March 25, 2008].)

The Virunga rangers are trying to crack down on the harvesting of wood for charcoal, which fuels stoves in the nearby city of Goma and neighboring Rwanda, where charcoal production has been banned.

The area is also patrolled by UN peacekeepers, who have sometimes fought back against the militia groups.

Despite the difficulties, WWF said it would not pull out of Virunga.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who have lost loved ones and with those injured," WWF said in a news release.

"We will continue to support conservation efforts in this very critical region."

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