March 19, 2008 / 4:58 PM / 12 years ago

Congo arrests ranger over gorilla killings

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congolese authorities have arrested a senior national park ranger on suspicion of arranging the killing of rare gorillas and burning protected trees for charcoal, conservationists and local media said on Wednesday.

Officials look at four dead mountain gorillas that were illegally killed in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the week of July 26 in this handout photo released by the International Gorilla Conservation Program on August 10, 2007. REUTERS/Altor Musema/International Gorilla Conservation Programme, Goma/Handout

Around 10 mountain gorillas were slaughtered last year in Democratic Republic of Congo’s remote Virunga National Park, causing a stir even in a country where violence, hunger and disease kill 1,500 people a day in the aftermath of the 1998-2003 war.

The senior Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN) official was arrested on Tuesday at his home in the eastern town of Goma, United Nations-supported radio station Okapi reported.

Okapi said the official appeared in court on Tuesday charged over the deaths of the gorillas and illegal charcoal burning.

Charcoal production in Virunga has been linked to criminal activity in the area, where local officials told Reuters last year that some killings of the huge, endangered apes had been part of a power struggle surrounding charcoal burning.

"This threatened the gorilla habitat, so when the rangers tried to protect the forest, he allegedly orchestrated the gorilla massacres to discourage them," conservation group Wildlife Direct said on its website on Wednesday.

Fewer than 720 mountain gorillas survive in the wild, spread across the Virunga hills where the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda meet.

Last month the three countries launched a joint 10-year plan to protect the gorillas from poaching and insecurity linked to militia violence that haunts the region nearly five years after the end of Congo’s war.

Conservationists hope the gorillas can be the centre of a relaunched ecotourism industry devastated by years of violence in the heavily forested intersection of the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

Some wealthy visitors pay $500 a day for tracking permits to view the gorillas, which are famed for the grey shimmering hair on the backs of adult males, which gives them the name “silver-backs”.

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Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Pascal Fletcher

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