Congo rebels threaten rare mountain gorillas

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A unique and critically endangered sub-species of mountain gorilla moved one step closer to extinction this week after a band of suspected rebels attacked ranger posts in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park killing one wildlife officer and wounding four more.

The group, said to be part of the Mai Mai rebel movement, which has been known to eat gorillas and whose fighters believe they are impervious to bullets, then threatened to kill mountain gorillas in the area if there were any reprisal attacks by the rangers or the government. The Mai Mai have, in the past, turned to killing the park's endangered wildlife, particularly hippopotamuses, to raise their political profile.

"This was an unprovoked attack on our rangers and other wildlife officers who protect Virunga's wildlife," said Norbert Mushenzi, Virunga National Park's director. "The Mai Mai said that if we retaliate, they will kill all the gorillas in this area."

Exact details of the attack are difficult to discover because of the remoteness of the region but park rangers said at least 200 rebels, commanded by a man called Jackson, launched an assault against three posts in the Mount Tshiaberimu area. One ranger was killed and 13 people were taken hostage and later released. A separate report said that shortly after the attack, the wife of one of the rangers, Katungu Kayisumbirwa, died while giving birth to her sixth child.

The patrol posts at Mount Tshiaberimu protect a tiny population of 21 gorillas, who some scientists say are a unique sub-species of the eastern lowland gorilla. Conservationists are particularly concerned that the type of rebel violence more common in the southern regions of the Virunga National Park may be spreading north. "This is a major tragedy for this unique set of gorillas," said Greg Cummings, the executive director of the Gorilla Organisation, one of the first conservation groups to begin operating in the Mount Tshiaberimu region.

"This group is particularly distinctive. They are smaller in size than normal mountain gorillas, have jet black shaggy hair and beautiful long noses almost like a mandril."

Despite the rebels' threat to target the gorillas if there are any reprisals, the DRC's government has sent two of its elite ranger units to hunt down the armed group. The Mai Mai group has been known to target the park's animals but not all attacks in the area are mounted by rebel groups. Disgruntled locals, forced from their land when the national park was created, and poachers have also attacked rangers. More than 120 of them have been killed over the past 10 years.

The Gorilla Organisation says the increasingly gung-ho attitude to the rebels taken by some conservation groups and elements within the government risks inflaming an already tense situation and could have a catastrophic effect on the local gorilla populations.

"Sending gun-toting paratroopers to hunt down these rebels is ripping a hole out of the last 10 year's conservation work," said Mr Cummings. "There are more than 10 million people within the Congo basin and there are real population conflicts within the protected areas. I'm blaming us conservationists just as much as anyone else for not spotting growing tension within the local population but this macho approach to policing the park is not the way to do it."

Virunga National Park was established as Africa's first national park in 1925. It was placed on Unesco's list of World Heritage Sites in danger in 1994 after 1.5 million refugees fled from Rwanda during the genocide.

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