November 10, 2008

Mountain Gorillas Affected By War In Congo

Park officials in East Congo said on Monday that conflict has put more than a quarter of the world's last mountain gorillas at the mercy of armed groups who hunt and camp in their territory. 

The gorillas now face even greater extinction because no rangers are left to protect or care for them.

Recent conflicts between Tutsi rebels and the government army and militia allies have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, which is home to the Virunga Park, Africa's oldest national park.

The conflicts have also stopped all protection and effective conservation monitoring for 200 of the last remaining 700 mountain gorillas in the world.

Rebel General Laurent Nkunda's fighters have had control of Virunga's Gorilla Sector since September 2007 and also the Rumangabo park headquarters which fell to a rebel assault in October this year.

Over 50 wildlife rangers were sent running for their lives after caring and protecting the gorillas and other animals in Virunga.  Joining them were 200,000 other refugees sheltering around the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.

"It's not possible now to have any news about the gorillas," one displaced Virunga park ranger, Diddy Mwanaka, told Reuters.

"We don't know about their health, their security or if they remain in a secure place or not," he said, speaking at a makeshift camp housing refugee rangers and their families.

The October 26 capture of the park's HQ by the rebels is documented on the park's website, http://www.gorilla.cd.

The communications director of the Virunga National Park, Samantha Newport, said park authorities were extremely concerned that the unprotected mountain gorillas families could now be caught up in the crossfire of combat.

"No one is looking after them in any way, shape or form," she said. At least 40 percent of the Virunga Park was no longer under the control of the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN).

While park authorities did not believe that gorillas were being singled out for killing, they and other animals such as elephants, hippos and antelopes faced threats from armed groups poachers, land invaders and charcoal burners who destroyed their forest habitat.

"All these rebel groups, from whatever side, use the park to train, to camp out, to rest and to eat," Newport said.

"We have problems of poaching of elephants, hippos, buffalo and antelope, just to name a few as a result of the presence of these armed groups in the park," Newport added, saying 40 elephants had been poached in Virunga this year alone.

East Congo's conflict has taken its toll on both the gorillas and the ICCN rangers who protect them over the years, despite the 1998-2003 war in the former Belgian Colony. 

There has been more than 150 rangers killed in the last decade protecting parks in east Congo.

In 2007, 10 mountain gorillas were killed after Virunga's Gorillas Sector was under attack.

Nkunda's rebels saw the South border park as strategic territory and used it as a supply route Newport said.

"At the moment, there is no chance of going back to the gorilla sector. When you have such a vulnerable, critically endangered population of animals, you really need to keep track of what is going on," she added.

Unlike other endangered species, mountain gorillas have never managed to reproduce in captivity.

"So the ones we have in the wild, that's it, when they're gone, that's it, they've gone," she said.


Image Caption:  Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda. August 4, 2005. Gorilla Mother and Baby - for an infant gorilla, Mama is food, transport, and playground. Credit: by Sarel Kromer. Courtesy Wikipedia