Call it the great ape escape. UN peacekeepers have flown four young gorillas from a conflict zone where they were at risk of being poached.
The gorillas were taken to a rehabilitation centre 200 kilometres north of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and will eventually be released into a nature reserve. “They are settling in very well, eating forest food and making nests,” reports Katie Fawcett of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The UN will fly in six more rescued gorillas from Rwanda in June.
They are eastern lowland gorillas, which number fewer than 5000 in the wild. In 2002, biologists warned that only 10 per cent might survive by 2030, and in March UNEP, the UN Environment Programme, said that most eastern lowland gorillas could be gone by 2020.
The problem, it says, is the region’s long-running armed conflict: soldiers and refugees kill wildlife and destroy forests for money and food. And it is getting worse. “Poaching has really shot up, by militias and also the army,” says Samantha Newport of Virunga National Park, which rescued the young lowland gorillas, and also shelters a third of the world’s 720 remaining mountain gorillas. “It is really a very, very bad time.”
Last week, soldiers attacked park staff five times, killing a ranger. UNEP wants UN peacekeepers to police border crossings, and stop the exports of charcoal, timber and minerals that finance the conflict.