GOMA, Congo (Reuters) - East Congo’s conflict has put more than a quarter of the world’s last mountain gorillas at the mercy of armed groups who hunt and camp in their territory, park officials said on Monday.
With no rangers left to protect or care for them, the gorillas face even greater risk of extinction, they said.
Recent fighting between Tutsi rebels and the government army and its militia allies has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province, home to the Virunga Park, Africa’s oldest national park.
It has also eliminated all protection and effective conservation monitoring for 200 of the last remaining 700 mountain gorillas in the world, who live in the forested hills of Virunga, on the border with Uganda and Rwanda.
Virunga’s Gorilla Sector has been in the hands of rebel General Laurent Nkunda’s fighters since September 2007 and the Rumangabo park headquarters, from which conservation operations were run, fell to a rebel assault in October this year.
More than 50 wildlife rangers, who had spent years protecting the gorillas and other animals in Virunga, were forced to run for their lives, joining 200,000 other refugees sheltering around the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.
“It’s not possible now to have any news about the gorillas,” one displaced Virunga park ranger, Diddy Mwanaka, told Reuters.
“We don’t know about their health, their security or if they remain in a secure place or not,” he said, speaking at a makeshift camp housing refugee rangers and their families.
The park’s website, www.gorilla.cd, chronicles the October 26 capture of the park’s HQ by the rebels and its consequences.
Samantha Newport, communications director of the Virunga National Park, said park authorities were extremely concerned that the unprotected mountain gorilla families, or solitary gorillas, could now be caught up in the crossfire of combat.
“No one is looking after them in any way, shape or form,” she said. At least 40 percent of the Virunga Park was no longer under the control of the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN).
Newport said that while park authorities did not believe that gorillas were being singled out for killing, they and other animals such as elephants, hippos and antelopes faced threats from armed groups, poachers, land invaders and charcoal burners who destroyed their forest habitat.
“All these rebel groups, from whatever side, use the park to train, to camp out, to rest and to eat,” she said.
“We have problems of poaching of elephants, hippos, buffalo and antelope, just to name a few as a result of the presence of these armed groups in the park,” Newport added, saying 40 elephants had been poached in Virunga this year alone.
Over the years, east Congo’s conflict, which has persisted despite the formal end of a 1998-2003 war in the vast, former Belgian colony, has taken its toll on both the gorillas and the ICCN rangers who protect them.
More than 150 rangers have been killed in the last decade protecting parks in east Congo.
Virunga’s Gorilla Sector suffered repeated attacks in 2007 during which 10 mountain gorillas were killed.
Newport said Nkunda’s rebels saw the south of the border park as strategic territory. They used it as a supply route.
“At the moment, there is no chance of going back to the gorilla sector... When you have such a vulnerable, critically endangered population of animals, you really need to keep track of what is going on,” she added.
Newport said that unlike other endangered species, mountain gorillas had never managed to reproduce in captivity.
“So the ones we have in the wild, that’s it, when they’re gone, that’s it, they’ve gone,” she said.
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Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Dakar: Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Louise Ireland
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