Rangers return to help Congo gorillas



Gorilla in the DR Congo

Credit: Wikimedia / J. Flynn

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KINSHASA: Democratic Republic Congo rebels have allowed rangers to return to a famed reserve, home to almost a third of the world's remaining mountain gorillas, 14 months after fighting forced them out of the zone.

"We haven't had access to the gorilla zone since September 2007," park Director Emmanuel de Merode said, speaking in a verdant rolling mountain country nestled on the border between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

Virunga National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of Africa's oldest and the mountain gorillas are a major tourist attraction.

Some 200 of the world's last remaining 700 live in the forests there.

Covering an area of 790,000 hectares, the park boasts an outstanding diversity of habitats: from swamps and steppes to snowfields and from lava plains to the savannahs on the slopes of volcanoes.

Armed Tutsi rebels loyal to cashiered general Laurent Nkunda have occupied the gorilla zone in Nord-Kivu province since 2006. The south part of the park has been controlled by rebels since an escalation in violence last August.

But the guns have been silent for the past two weeks.

"We have been talking to the CNDP (Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People). Talks were limited, however, to the issues of park management and wildlife preservation," Merode said.

"The CNDP control all of the Rutshuru territory, that's the entire south part of the park, but they have allowed the public body that manages the park to carry on with its work without conditions," he added.

Rangers were allowed to return to the park on Thursday, according to the director.

"The rangers are now planning to initiate a census of the habituated mountain gorillas, which will probably take a month and which will give us a precise indication of their numbers and health," he said.

Merode hailed the renewed access as a landmark step.

It is a huge step that all sides have agreed that the protection of Virunga as a World Heritage Site and its mountain gorillas is of sufficient priority to transcend political differences," said Merode.

"Rangers are neutral in this conflict, and it is right that they should be allowed to do their job."

The guards have paid a heavy price in the conflict - and at least 120 of them have been killed in the fighting since 1996, he said.

On Friday, about 120 rangers returned to their headquarter at Rumangabo, which was evacuated by the rebels on Friday in a new peace initiative to boost UN plans to end the military standoff between them and government soldiers.

In its heyday in the 1980s, the park attracted safari aficionados from across the globe and earned the sobriquet of "African Riviera" for its picture postcard landscape.

But in recent years it became the scene of bitter fighting and a playground for poachers and others involved in illegal logging.

The gorillas have also borne the brunt of the conflict and have been repeatedly attacked since 2007. In July that year, 10 gorillas were killed in the worst such massacre since the 1970s.

They are also often targeted by locals for food as "bushmeat" is highly prized in the region.

Twenty-five elephants were also killed in the park last year and the hippopotamus population there has shrunk from 30,000 in the 1970s to 300 at present.