Congo Warlord's Arrest Puts Gorillas' Future in Turmoil

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
January 23, 2009

The political future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park—home to about 200 of the world's roughly 680 mountain gorillas—was thrown into turmoil Thursday night with the arrest of Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

Nkunda's rebel movement had held sway over much of the region in which Virunga is located since August 2007.

When the rebels—called the National Congress for the People's Defense (CNDP)—took over the park, the government rangers working to protect the gorillas were forced to evacuate the area. (See photos of the Virunga gorillas in National Geographic magazine.)

After a 15-month-long absence, the rangers were able to return in November 2008 after the park's director, Emmanuel de Merode, struck a deal directly with Nkunda to allow his rangers to resume their work.

It's unclear how that arrangement—and the protection of the gorillas—will be affected by Nkunda's arrest.

"We're being swept around by [political] events right now, but the national park has made a very concerted effort to remain apolitical," de Merode said Friday from the city of Goma, located outside Virunga.

"I'm reasonably confident that we'll be able to stay in the park."

(Related: "Inside the Gorilla Wars: Rangers on Risking It All" [June 16, 2008].)

Gorilla Protector?

Nkunda was arrested in neighboring Rwanda after he had fled a joint operation launched by the armies of Rwanda and Congo, according to the Associated Press.

Rwandan and Congolese troops converged Thursday on Nkunda's stronghold in the Congolese town of Bunagana near the Ugandan border. But Nkunda fled farther south, crossing the border into Rwanda where he was taken into custody, an account confirmed by the Rwandan army.

In an interview last month with National Geographic News in Bunagana, Nkunda talked extensively about his plans to safeguard the gorillas and develop Virunga National Park as a tourist destination.

Continued on Next Page >>




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