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Gorillas under fire

AFP

Conservation

Congo gorillas

Credit: iStockphoto

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GOMA: The new conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has forced dozens of rangers to flee Africa's oldest national park, leaving hundreds of threatened mountain gorillas at the mercy of rebel fighters and poachers.

Wildlife officers escaped into the forest when fighters loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda occupied part of the park as they launched their march on Goma, the main city in the east of D.R. Congo, which is now surrounded.

Set up in 1925, Virunga covers some 7,800 square kilometres. Its varied terrain includes two of Africa's most active volcanoes, swamps and snow-capped mountains.

It is also home to more than half of the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas as well as 20,000 hippopotamus, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

UNESCO named Virunga a World Heritage site in 1979 and placed it on the organisation's endangered list in 1994 when a first civil war broke out in the country.

D.R. Congo's Environment Minister Jose Endundo Mononge said that the fighting between the army and Nkunda's rebels poses a great threat to the park and would hit tourism income, while opening up worrying opportunities for poachers.

"In just 2007, we recorded the slaughter of 15 mountain gorillas ... and more than 20,000 antelopes," he told a press conference in Kinshasa on Friday.

Park rangers told how they fled Virunga on October 26 after Nkunda's forces moved in as part of their campaign to take over Nord-Kivu province.

"We were at our posts when we heard an exchange of gunfire between the rebels and the army. At around 6:30 am, the gunshots got closer so we fled into the forest," said Desire, a 31-year-old ranger.

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