Gorilla conservationists have been assured that the endangered primates in Virunga National Park are safe after rebels loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda on Monday surrounded two ranger stations inside the park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The rebel soldiers invaded the two ranger patrol posts, looting them of their weapons, mobile phones and rations and forcing the rangers and their families to evacuate the national park.
Following these attacks, rangers at a third patrol post at Bukima were also evacuated, but the Gorilla Organization says it can report that rangers have now returned to the Bukima post and have confirmed the safety of all habituated gorilla groups in this area.
The Gorilla Organization is a UK conservation group formerly known as Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe. It is an outgrowth of the work of Dr. Dian Fossey, who was murdered in 1985 while studying mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park on the Rwanda side of the border.
Tuver Wundi, the Gorilla Organization’s communication manager based in Goma reported from a meeting with the ICCN, the Congolese wildlife authority in charge of the Virungas National Park, "The monitoring team inform us that for the moment all habituated gorillas are doing well. 73 gorillas have been identified, including 13 silverbacks, 7 blackbacks, 17 adult females, 5 sub-adult males, 15 juveniles and 13 babies."
Wundi said, "Without ranger patrols at the Jomba and Bikenge patrol posts it is a worrying time for the gorillas but for the moment it remains quiet and we continue to be positive that the gorillas will be safe. We are monitoring the situation and doing all we can to ensure that peace returns to the gorilla sector."
Nine mountain gorillas have been killed in the park since the beginning of the year. Despite much speculation, it is still unclear as to why the gorillas are being killed and to date no one is sure who is responsible.
Greg Cummings, executive director of the Gorilla Organization said, "The attacks on rangers and the loss of mountain gorillas this year are devastating and major set backs to gorilla conservation."
"Community support is vital if the gorillas and their habitat are to be protected in the long-term," he said. "If these events are to be prevented in the future we need to ensure that the local people are involved in gorilla conservation and understand just how valuable the gorillas are to the country."
These views were endorsed by a recent fact-finding mission conducted by the United Nations in response to the massacre in July, in which six gorillas lost their lives.
The mission observed the importance of including local communities in efforts to preserve the gorillas and and ensuring that they get their share from income generating activities linked to the presence of wildlife.
The conservation of mountain gorillas brings great prospects to the local people living on the border of the Virunga National Park. Community conservation projects protect the gorilla habitat by providing local people with sustainable alternatives to the forests’ resources - alternatives that reduce poverty and improve the health and wellbeing of so many individuals living in the area, says the Gorilla Organization.
If peace returned to the region, tourism would have the chance to flourish and the area would benefit from the economic advantages that gorilla tourism brings. But these recent attacks threaten to prevent this from happening and send the region into economic and ecological despair, the organization said.
The Gorilla Organization understands that if gorillas are to survive in the context of Africa's other challenges, conservation efforts need to be owned and managed by local people.
With this in mind, the organization's program develops the capacity of local people living on the borders of the national parks, by supporting long-term poverty alleviation and environmental education projects. These not only bring benefits to local people, but also enable them to play an active role in gorilla conservation and become stakeholders in the gorillas' future.