Highly endangered mountain gorillas in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo faced fresh dangers Monday after renegade troops overran their habitat, forcing rangers to flee, conservationists warned.
Forces loyal to cashiered general Laurent Nkunda, a powerful local leader, attacked Jomba and Bikenge patrol posts in Virunga National Park, Wildlife Direct said in a statement.
His troops looted weapons, ammunition and communication equipment, four days after a wildlife ranger was killed in another attack on a patrol post north of Rushuru, it added.
A third patrol post in Bukima was being evacuated pending an imminent attack, leaving the rare primates exposed to massacres that have already claimed several gorillas this year alone.
"If anything happens to the mountain gorillas now, there is nothing we can do," said Norbert Mushenzi of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).
"As of today the sector is no longer under my control and we have been rendered powerless by these actions," he added in a statement.
Evacuated patrol posts lies nears the border of Uganda and Rwanda up to 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of Goma, the capital of Nord Kivu province in which the fighting is taking place. A patrol post in Rutshuru, where a ranger was killed last week, lies 50 kilometres north of Goma.
Nine mountain gorillas have been killed and two still missing in Virunga national park since January. These slaughters, some blamed on Nkunda's men, have sparked outrage among conservationists.
After two were slaughtered and eaten in January, the renegade troops pledged to halt the killings in a meeting with Virunga park officials mediated by the United Nations and Congolese army.
"The area continues to see heightened political instability and rangers have been struggling to protect the mountain gorillas amid the threat of poachers and armed militia groups," the statement warned.
Local and foreign militias as well as Congolese soldiers, poachers and illegal miners regularly cross this area of the Virunga park, one of Africa's largest national parks and a UNESCO world heritage site. Sometimes they occupy parts of it.
The mountain gorillas are a major tourist attraction in the Virunga park, but poaching of wildlife there is endemic.
Only about 700 critically endangered mountain gorillas remain in the wild, all of them living in the mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the eastern DRC.
Nkunda's rebels and other armed groups are accused of poaching there and encroaching on their habitats.
Wildlife Direct chief Emmanuel de Merode warned that gorillas and rangers face "enormous peril" in the park that sits in one of Africa's most volatile region, wracked by on-and-off conflicts for more than four decades.
"They need our support even more now," he pleaded in statement.
"We do not believe the rebels are specifically targeting the gorillas," he added.
"The gorillas happen to live in one of the areas of the worst areas of the world for conflict that is strategically important for armed groups. But we fear for the safety of these endangered creatures," Merode added.
Frankfurt Zoological Society's Robert Muir said remaining neutral was the only way to save the rare gorillas in DRC, also home to chimpanzees and bonobos -- pygmy chimps whose population has been decimated over the past 15 years.
It is "only by remaining apolitical will we have a chance of pushing the conservation agenda and the desperate need to protect the mountain gorillas onto the table of warring factions," Muir added.
More than 150 rangers have been killed in the last 10 years while protecting five parks in the country's eastern region.
Fighting between the DRC regular army and and Nkunda's renegade troops resumed Monday after a weekend lull in a battle for control of territory in the eastern region, displacing hundreds of thousands of villagers.
Nkunda is a Tutsi, like Rwanda's minority population targeted in the 2004 genocide carried out by then Hutu troops and youth militias in the smaller nation across the border, and he claims one of his aims is to protect Congolese ethnic Tutsis.