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.

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