39 rangers missing in Virunga Park after headquarters overtaken by rebels
Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com
October 30, 2008
Five days after rebels occupied Virunga Park’s headquarters, thirty-nine wildlife rangers are still unaccounted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). During the takeover, which included fighting between the Congolese army and the rebels, many of the rangers fled into the forest.
“The situation in Virunga is incredibly dangerous; the safety of the rangers caught in the crossfire is our first priority,” Dr Noëlle Kümpel, said, the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Africa Programme Manager. The rangers are supported by funds from the EU, ZSL, and other conservation organizations.
The rangers who fled do not have food, water, or shelter elsewhere in the park. In addition, so long as they remain in the park they are bystanders in a civil conflict. “These people have devoted their lives to protecting Virunga’s mountain gorillas – whose survival now also hangs in the balance.” Kümpel adds.
In 2005 Corneille Ewango was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his leadership in protecting Okapi Faunal Reserve from poachers, loggers and miners. This photo, courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize, shows guards from the Okapi Faunal Reserve performing morning exercises. The current violence is occurring in Virunga, which lies east of Okapi Faunal Reserve.
Virunga National Park is home to 200 mountain gorillas. Critically endangered, these massive and largely peaceful primates have come under increasing threat due to the rebels’ invasion and a humanitarian crisis surrounding the park. In July 2007 the park made international news when four gorillas were found shot “execution-style”. No one has been convicted of the crime.
“This humanitarian crisis is likely to have a devastating effect on conservation efforts in this area for a long time to come,” Dr. Kümpel said. “The Park’s dedicated rangers are critical to its future and they need continued support. We are asking people to log on to our website zsl.org to donate money which will go straight to them and their families.” ZSL has partnered with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation’s emergency relief effort to help the rangers and their families attain supplies.
Provincial Director of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), Dr. Emmanuel de Merode, added: “Virunga is in an unprecedented crisis. The fighting continues to spread in all directions, the rangers have lost control of the southern sector of the park, and 39 gorilla rangers are still missing. We urgently need support to protect the rangers and their families.”
Four gorillas killed last year in Virunga by men with links to a charcoal gang in Goma. Image courtesy of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.
Rangers that managed to be evacuated have moved with their families to a camp in a nearby town of Goma. Food, water, sanitation, and medical care are desperately needed in the camp, whose 670 inhabitants have already experience an outbreak of cholera.
In the last decade, 120 rangers have died due to the civil conflict. Virunga’s rangers often work with little or no wages to guard one of the mountain gorillas’ last many and many other natural treasures of Virunga Park, including the greatest diversity of vertebrae species in all of Africa.
(10/26/2008) Rebels in Democratic Republic of Congo seized the headquarters of Virunga National Park — a refuge home to 200 of the world’s 700 remaining endangered mountain gorillas — according to a statement by park officials. Some 50 rangers fled into the forests and abandoned the park station after intense fighting between the Congolese army and the rebels loyal to dissident General Laurent Nkunda.