Guerillas Threaten Gorillas In Congo’s Virunga National Park
May 15, 2012

Guerillas Threaten Gorillas In Congo’s Virunga National Park

Brett Smith for

Heavily armed Congolese rebels taking refuge in their country´s Virunga National Park are placing endangered mountain gorillas under additional threat, according to conservation officials.

The park is home to a large portion of the world´s remaining 800 mountain gorillas and park officials said that the situation means conservation efforts must be either modified or placed on hold.

"We are deeply concerned with the safety of the mountain gorillas who are exposed to the dangers of artillery fire, but we must also take care of our staff who have to be evacuated from the combat zone,” Emmanuel de Merode, chief warden for Virunga National Park told CNN in a statement. “As soon as there is a lull in the fighting, we will return to check on the gorillas."

Currently, officials are only monitoring the situation from the air, as ground patrols are determined to be too dangerous. Of the park's five gorilla patrol posts, only two remain open after reports surfaced of rebels moving into the area. The Virunga conservation team said two gorilla families are caught up in the fighting and they hope the primates will be able to stay away from any militants.

The Democratic Republic of Congo government issued an ultimatum last week to the rebel group based in or near the park and headed by Col. Innocent Kaina. The group refused to lay down their weapons after a cease-fire agreement with the Congolese military ended. Thousands of people have fled the area since the army began operations near Masisi on April 29.

“We will not look back,” Col. Kaina told the Associated Press (AP) on May 10. “They had said we should put down our guns, but we didn´t. We still have guns and are ready to fight whoever attacks us.”

The Congo has seen long periods of military battles over the past decade, yet the Virunga National Park has an excellent record regarding the conservation of these gorillas. It has been a key component in boosting the mountain gorilla population from about 300 to 800 worldwide.

Besides being caught in the cross fire of a military rebellion, the park´s gorillas are also threatened by poaching. After poachers killed several gorillas in March, Virunga officials said they were worried that ivory hunters were going after the few dozen elephants living in the park. The gorillas are not typically hunted for their meat, but are maimed or killed by poachers leaving snares for other animals. They have also been killed for their body parts, which are then sold to collectors.

The gorillas aren´t the only casualties in the battle for their survival. Park rangers often risk their lives protecting the animals and their habitat. Since January 2011, at least 21 rangers and soldiers from the national army working in the park have been killed. The presence of rebels and government forces in the area has only increased the level of danger for primates of all kinds living and working in the park. Three people working in Virunga–a ranger and two soldiers–were killed last week when they were ambushed by 100 fighters.