November 22, 2008

Rangers Return to Gorilla Park in Congo

Rangers returned to Virunga National Park on Friday after being forced to flee the area in September 2007 when armed Tutsi rebels loyal to General Laurent Nkunda took over the park's gorilla sector.

Virunga's gorilla sector is home to 200 of the world's remaining 700 mountain gorillas, which live in forests along the borders with Rwanda and Uganda. The sector suffered repeated attacks in 2007, during which 10 mountain gorillas were killed.

A rebel offensive last month forced the rangers to abandon the remainder of Africa's oldest park when the park's headquarters, from which conservation operations were run, fell to a rebel assault.

Nkunda's clashes with the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma and other towns have displaced a quarter million people, bringing to more than 1 million the total number displaced by two years of fighting in North Kivu.

"It is a huge step that all sides have agreed that the protection of Virunga as a World Heritage Site and its mountain gorillas is of sufficient priority to transcend political differences," said Emmanuel de Merode, the park's Director, in a statement.

Nkunda reigned in his fighters from some positions seized during the past few weeks after meeting with U.N. envoy and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.

On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council agreed to deploy 3,000 reinforcements to a peacekeeping force in Congo.  The force is now the largest in the world, and stands 17,000 strong.

"Rangers are neutral in this conflict, and it is right that they should be allowed to do their job," said de Merode.

"The re-establishment of a Ranger presence in Virunga National Park is paramount to the protection of the flora and fauna in the park," park authorities said in the statement.

"The rangers are now planning to initiate a census of the habituated mountain gorillas in coming days; the last census in August 2007 indicated there are 72 habituated gorillas, but this figure is expected to have changed due to births, death, and interactions," the statement said.

Some of the rangers forced to flee the park squatted in filthy refugee camps as they awaited return to their posts.  More than 150 rangers have been killed in eastern Congo in decade-long conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 5 million through violence, disease and hunger.

While Congo's five-year regional war formally ended in 2003, various armed factions have continued fighting in the country's eastern region, often competing for resources such as gold and timber.

According to park authorities, gorillas and other animals such as elephants, antelopes and hippos are susceptible to militias who occupy eastern Congo. These rebels often use National Parks to camp or conceal themselves.  The animals face further threats from squatters, poachers and charcoal burners who destroy their natural habitat.