DRC insurgency threatens gorillas

by May 17, 2012Conservation Threats, Great Apes, Virunga, Wildlife News

Kasese – Renewed fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has put the lives of mountain gorillas in the Virunga massif at risk.

The intense fighting, which broke out on May 11 between rebels led by renegade General Bosco Ntaganda and Kinshasa government forces, has resulted in the closure of five patrol posts in DRC’s Virunga national park.

Speaking during a regional meeting of conservationists organised by the Greater Virunga Trans-boundary Collaboration (GVTC) in Kasese town this week, the chief warden for Virunga national park, Dr Emmanuel de Merode, said the closure of the patrol posts around Mikeno Sector followed the death of three rangers in the fighting. Ten others were wounded.

“We’re deeply concerned about the safety of the mountain gorillas, which are exposed to the danger of artillery fire, but we must also take care of our staff, who have to be evacuated from the combat zone. As soon as there is a lull in the fighting, we’ll return to check on the gorillas,” Dr de Merode said.

Virunga massif is a UNESCO world heritage site because of its uniqueness as one of the two homes to the world’s surviving 786 mountain gorillas. The area, shared by Rwanda (Volcanoes national park), Uganda (Mgahinga national park) and DRC (Virunga national park), had shown an increase in the number of gorillas from 380 individuals eight years ago to the current 480, a development attributed to relative peace in the region.

The rest of the mountain gorilla population is in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest national park, where a census was recently conducted and results are yet to be released.

With the current insurgency in DRC that has seen more than 1,500 rebels enter the park, conservationists are worried about a significant negative impact on the endangered species. According to Dr de Merode, the fighting, which is mostly concentrated around Virunga park’s gorilla patrol posts of Bikenge and Jomba, caused serious damage to the former, forcing rangers to abandon their positions.

Gorillas are the biggest tourism revenue earners for Uganda and Rwanda. According to Uganda Wildlife Authority statistics, the primates contribute more than 50 percent of the country’s tourism revenue.

Uganda, with ten habituated gorilla families (nine of which are open for tourism, while one is reserved for research), earned $660m (approximately Shs 1.6 trillion) from tourism last year — making the sector the country’s leading foreign exchange earner.

Of the ten gorilla families, only one (Nyakagezi) is located in the Virunga massif and has, for the last one year, been camping in Rwanda.

Because of the insurgency, DRC has not fully tapped into the potential of gorilla tourism, although, for the last three years, Virunga national park has seen a dramatic increase in tourism, with more than 5,000 tourists visiting the park — demonstrating the potential of a stable North Kivu region.

Now, following the insurgency that broke out last week, the park has suspended tourism activities indefinitely.

“We admire the courage and resolve of Dr de Merode and his staff in protecting the wildlife of Virunga national park,” said Sam Mwandha, the GVTC executive secretary. “We hope the fighting will be over soon so that park staff can resume their duties of protecting this landscape and its flagship species, the mountain gorilla.”

As reported by the GVTC, trans-boundary collaboration within the Virunga massif remains strong and is credited for the safe evacuation of rangers.

“It is in these moments that we appreciate the true value of trans-boundary collaboration,” said Maxime Nzita Nganga, deputy executive secretary of the GVTC. “It is this mechanism and the incredible efforts by all partners in DRC and Rwanda that allowed for the safe return of a coordinated patrol caught deep in the park when the militia moved into Mikeno sector of Virunga national park.”