Conflict zone Mountain Gorillas viewed by rangers for first time in more than a year



Posted on 23 December 2008  | 
Eastern DRC – Mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been seen by park rangers for the first time since the rangers were forced out of areas of Virunga National Park by Laurent Nkunda’s army 15 months ago.

Virunga National Park director, Emmanuel de Merode, successfully negotiated with Nkunda and got confirmation that Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) would be allowed to reenter and work in the southern part of the park.

ICCN, the government institution in charge of protected areas management, park rangers and their families were forced out of the park when rebel leader Nkunda and his army took control of several parts of the park including the areas where mountain gorillas are found in September 2007. Since that time, no one outside of Nkunda’s army has been allowed to monitor the gorillas.

“We were very worried about the mountain gorillas as we had not any contact with them for over a year but ICCN rangers have already seen many of the mountain gorilla families and we are happy to report that most of them seem to be doing well,” said de Merode. “We are continuing our census of the gorillas and are reinstating our antipoaching operations.”

In spite of this good news in the southern part of the park, the central and eastern sectors of the park remain very unsafe. Over half of ICCN’s staff and their families who work in Virunga National Park (over 2000 people) are now living at IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) sites outside of the park because of fighting between Nkunda’s army and the Congolese army.

The conflict in the Congo has forced thousands of people to flee their homes and there are now an estimated 145,000 IDPs scattered in 6 sites just outside of the national park. The people living in these sites are in desperate need of food, shelter and fuelwood.

WWF has been focusing its efforts in the area on the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict and is distributing fuelwood from sustainable tree plantations to people living in IDP sites. WWF has also been passing out improved cooking stoves, which use half the amount of wood as a normal stove.

“WWF believes that the needs of people displaced by the fighting and the gorillas are inextricably linked—we are providing displaced people with the basic resources they need for shelter and cooking, while at the same time protecting Virugna National Park’s forests, which are already heavily damaged by illegal logging for wood and charcoal,” said Dr. Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF International’s Species Programme. “We hope that a normal life can quickly be restored for local communities living near and benefiting from the park and its gorillas.”

Virunga National Park was created in 1925 as Africa's first protected area and is located in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, bordering Rwanda and Uganda. Despite its protected status, encroachment for farming and settlement, as well as by warring rebel factions, is leading to uncontrolled exploitation of its forests.

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The total population of the mountain gorilla subspecies is about 700 individuals, split almost evenly into two groups: one in the Virunga range of volcanoes on the Uganda-Rwanda-DRC border, and the other in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
The total population of the mountain gorilla subspecies is about 700 individuals, split almost evenly into two groups: one in the Virunga range of volcanoes on the Uganda-Rwanda-DRC border, and the other in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY Enlarge
A man burning wood in the Virunga National Park, near the provincial Capital of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park and it's trees is coming under increasing threat as a result of charcoal burning, primarily by military groups.
© © Kate Holt / WWF-UK Enlarge

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