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Gorilla refuge falls into rebel hands in Congo; Park HQ seized

Gorilla refuge falls into rebel hands in Congo; Park HQ seized

Gorilla refuge falls into rebel hands in Congo; Park HQ seized
October 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.

“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).

More than 150 rangers have been killed in the line of duty protecting wildlife in eastern Congo over the last decade. Some 1,100 wildlife rangers currently patrol the national parks of Eastern Congo.

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.

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  • Wildlife Direct’s Gorilla Protection

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