GOMA, Congo — There are only about 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and most of them live in Virunga National Park, in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But their home territory is occupied by heavily armed rebels fighting the Congolese government.
According to conservation officials, four different armed groups are in the park. While the rebels most likely do not intend to harm the critically endangered primates, park officials say that the situation means that conservation efforts are on hold.
“We cannot do our job in the area until the rebels leave,” Cai Tjeenk Willink, in charge of tourism and development at Virunga, said in a telephone interview.
For now, the Virunga team says two gorilla families are caught up in the middle of the fighting. Officials are able to monitor the situation only from the air, as ground patrols are too dangerous. The rangers can only hope that the gorillas will be clever enough to stay away from any gun battles.
The park, which UNESCO designated a World Heritage Site in 1979, has been closed to tourists until the security situation improves.
“The fact that we have closed does not mean we will be closed for very long. We are hoping to reopen as soon as possible, hopefully before the summer season,” Willink said.
Despite more than a decade of turmoil in the eastern Congo, Virunga has a good conservation record. The gorilla population is slowly recovering. At one point, only about 300 were left in the world, but now that number is closer to 800.
The park also offers spectacular volcanoes that tourists can climb. On occasion, one of the volcanoes will erupt, shooting lava high into the sky and illuminating even the darkest night.
Another of the park’s concerns – when it is not caught up in political upheavals – is poaching. In March, Virunga raised the alarm, saying it was worried that ivory hunters were going after the few dozen elephants still in the park. That came after poachers killed several gorillas.
The Virunga rangers often risk their lives protecting the flora and fauna in the region. Since January 2011, at least 21 rangers and soldiers from the national army working in the park have been killed, mostly at the hands of criminals.
The situation has worsened since the rebels took shelter in the park, with government forces in close pursuit. It was only a matter of time before the park staff got caught up in the latest gunfights.
Three people working for Virunga – a ranger and two soldiers – were killed on Thursday when they were ambushed by 100 fighters. The dead men had been part of a patrol protecting a civilian convoy.
One of the rebel groups in the park, says Willink, is the CNDP, led by Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his part in the Congolese civil war, which ended in 2003.
Although Ntaganda became a partner of the government when it sought to reach a peace deal in the volatile east of the country, the government is now seeking his arrest.