Three Great Lakes nations on Wednesday launched a joint project to protect the rare mountain gorillas that are threatened with extinction in the east central African region.
About 720 critically endangered mountain gorillas remain in the wild, all of them in the mountain forests of Rwanda, Uganda and the volatile east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The first four years of the "10-year strategic project" is funded by the Dutch government and is aimed at protecting the mountain gorillas and their habitat as well adressing poaching and encroachment that have blighted the rare species.
The scheme will include measures to improve the lives of the communities who depend on the nearby national parks for survival, said Uganda Wildlife Authority spokeswoman Lillian Nsubuga.
"About four million euro (5.8 million dollars) will go into this project," she told AFP, adding that the three nations derive about five million dollars (3.4 million euros) a year from interest in the mountain gorillas, including tourism.
Officials said project will seek strengthening and harmonisation of the three countries' policies and laws on the conservation and management of protected areas and the associated natural resources.
In addition, they called for political support from their respective governments to the ongoing transboundary conservation initiatives.
"The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) is to ensure the conservation of mountain gorillas and their regional afromontane forest habitat in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC," according to a joint statement by wildlife officials in the three nations.
Ten mountain gorillas have been killed and two have gone missing in the DRC Virunga park since January 2007. These deaths, some blamed on fighters loyal to cashiered DRC general Laurent Nkunda, have sparked outrage among conservationists.
After two were killed and eaten in January last year, the renegade troops pledged to halt the killings in a meeting with Virunga park officials mediated by the United Nations and Congolese army, but the deal fell apart.
Local and foreign militias as well as Congolese soldiers, poachers and illegal miners regularly cross this area of the park, one of Africa's largest.
According to conservationists, about 720 critically endangered mountain gorillas -- estimated figures as follows: 340 in Uganda, 250 in Rwanda and 130 in eastern DRC -- remain in the wild, all of them in the mountainious forests in the three countries.
There are 1,100 rangers protecting five national parks -- four of which are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites -- in eastern DRC. Some 150 rangers have been killed while on duty in the past decade.