Some of Central Africa's most endangered species, like the Northern White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) and the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) could easily fall prey to profiteering from the commotion caused by the conflict in and around protected areas such as Garamba and Virunga National Parks.
"The increased presence of high-powered firearms and the disruption of conservation activities in the parks are a dangerous combination," said Deborah Snelson, WWF Eastern Africa Representative, from Nairobi. "Two Mountain gorillas were killed last month and it could happen again anytime, given the scale of the conflict."
Located where the borders of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda meet, the Virunga National Park was established in 1925. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is Africa's oldest national park and a unique tropical mountain forest. Together with neighbouring Volcano National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Virunga is home to half of the world's remaining 620 mountain gorillas.
In 1994, Virunga was placed on the "Heritage in Danger" list because of the widespread destruction caused by the influx of nearly one million refugees fleeing Rwanda. The current crisis has left park personnel cut off from their headquarters in Kinshasa. Although they have not received salaries since last January, highly dedicated park staff have continued their work, where possible, in spite of very difficult circumstances. This effort is supported by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a joint initiative of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna Flora International and WWF. WWF also supports education activities for communities living around the park.
Another especially sensitive area suffering from the conflict is Garamba National Park, in Northeast DRC, which contains the last population of the Northern White Rhinos known to exist in the wild. A survey carried out in May confirmed a minimum number of 23 animals.
"We have lost all contact with the park staff in Garamba," explained Ms Snelson. "The Chief Park Warden came to Nairobi for a meeting and is now stranded here, and the warden in charge of the rhinos had to flee the area. There is no telling what has happened to the rest of the park personnel who are working with us or to the rhinos."
Garamba is a savanna habitat of outstanding beauty. Also a World Heritage Site, it was placed on the "Heritage in Danger" list in 1996. Political instability in the area and in neighbouring Sudan resulted in an increase of poaching in the park throughout 1997. Rebuilding of essential park operations had just begun when the current hostilities broke out last August.
Other equally important areas affected by the conflict are Maiko and Kahuzi-Biega National parks, and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. The last two are also World Heritage Sites and have been designated as "Heritage in Danger" since 1997.
"The sad thing is that these national parks are not just wildlife conservation areas," said Ms Snelson. "They are areas that are key to the development of the region and should be protected as such, so that the people and their children living around them can benefit from their unique biological and economic value, now and in the future."
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