September 25, 2007 / 7:09 PM / 13 years ago

Congo rangers break suspected gorilla traffic ring

By Joe Bavier

KINSHASA, Sept 25 (Reuters) - Congolese park rangers have arrested two members of a gang they suspect of trying to traffic rare gorillas for $8,000 each, but were too late to save a young ape found rotting in the forest, conservationists said.

Poachers and gunmen have killed at least nine mountain gorillas this year and a possible revival in trafficking poses another threat to the mighty beasts, of whom just 700 remain, spread between Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.

Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) rangers arrested two men after a weeks-long investigation into a suspected trafficking ring, said Samantha Newport, spokeswoman for Wildlife Direct, which supports conservation in Africa.

Rangers said in a blog on the organisation's website here that they had infiltrated the trafficking ring, whose members said they had two gorillas for sale at $8,000 each.

But in the operation the rangers found the badly decomposed remains of a female gorilla of 3 or 4 years old, who they estimated had been dead for about a week, and who the two suspects said had been taken from the Virunga National Park.

Newport said that after years of efforts to curb the trade in endangered species, the ICCN had thought trafficking in mountain gorillas "was pretty much wiped out ... they were quite surprised when they found this out".

But she said it was unclear what the gorillas were being trafficked for -- or if other individuals may already have been smuggled out of the park and sold.

"It is entirely possible ... We've had the civil war for 10 years and the country is still coming out of it. The tracking and monitoring has been limited by the stability or lack of stability in the region," she told Reuters by phone.

Congo's mountain gorillas have weathered years of warfare in Congo's east -- even though more than 150 rangers have been killed trying to protect the area's five national parks from poachers and armed groups.

But this year at least nine mountain gorillas from Virunga, Africa's oldest national park, have been killed, some to be eaten by rebel fighters or sold as "bush meat".

In the worst incident, five gorillas were slaughtered and abandoned inside Virunga park, in an attack conservationists linked to a power struggle between local government agents trying to preserve the park and people profiting from illicit charcoal made from its trees.

Earlier this month Tutsi fighters loyal to renegade Congolese army General Laurent Nkunda raided ranger stations at the heart of Virunga and seized rifles, looted equipment and supplies and forced the rangers and their families to flee, halting their work monitoring the rare primates.

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