Gorilla refuge falls into rebel hands in Congo; Park HQ seized
October 26, 2008
"The seizure of our Park Headquarters at Rumangabo by rebels is unprecedented, even in all the years of conflict in the region. We have now instructed all Rangers to withdraw and make their way on foot through the forest to Kibumba, 20km south of Rumangabo, where we are sending trucks to bring them to safety in Goma. The conflict on the ground is chaotic and dangerous and we cannot allow our Rangers to become targets," said Virunga Park Director Emmanuel de Merode.
"When the rebels started approaching the park station we thought we were all going to be killed. We are not military combatants, we are Park Rangers protecting Virunga's wildlife," said Park Ranger Bareke Sekibibi by mobile phone from the forest as he made his way to safety.
Juvenile gorilla in Bwindi (top) and a wildlife guide searching for gorillas in Bwindi (bottom). Photos by Rhett A. Butler. Map courtesy of the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN).
Virunga was last attacked in July 2007 when 5 gorillas were massacred. The incident sparked a international outcry. Two silverbacks were also killed in January 2007 and in September 2007 a dead infant female was found in the hands of alleged traffickers, according to the statement from park authorities.
With its dense forest cover, Virunga is an attractive target for illegal charcoal producers in neighboring towns as well as rebel groups operating in eastern Congo and bordering countries. Although the country's long-running civil war officially ended in 2003, fighting in the region has since displaced hundreds of thousands of people. By some estimates, more than 1,500 people are dying per day due to diesease and malnutrition.
Until today's seizure, Virguna had been seen as one of the few bright spots in the region. Rangers have been working to "habituate" gorillas in hopes of again attracting high-paying ecotourists to eastern Congo. In neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, visitors pay more than $300 for a chance to spend a few minutes seeing gorillas in their natural habitat.
Established in 1925, Virunga National Park is Africa's oldest national park. The DR Congo section of the park is home to 200 critically endangered mountain gorillas, while the Virunga Volcanoes Conservation Area in Rwanda and Uganda supports another 180. The remaining 320 mountain gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda.
How to help
Rebels invade Congo gorilla sanctuary, park rangers evacuated
(9/4/2007) Guerillas have invaded Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, causing park rangers to flee, and leaving critically endangered mountain gorillas at great risk, reports Wildlife Direct, a group that promotes wildlife protection through blogs by rangers and conservationists.
U.N. sends team to investigate gorilla killings
(8/10/2007) The U.N. said it will send a team of experts to probe the killings of critically endangered mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Four gorillas were shot "execution-style" last month, while three others have been killed so far this year. Rangers believe illegal charcoal harvesters from Goma are to blame.
Rare gorillas slaughtered in mass killing
(7/24/2007) At least four critically endangered gorillas have been killed in Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park. National Geographic News reports they were shot "execution-style". Illegal charcoal harvesters are leading suspects in the slaying. Two other gorillas are missing and feared dead.