Gorillas caught between the lines of new Congo war

Fighting in the central African state has reached the national park where a dwindling population of primates lives

A A A

One-quarter of the world's entire mountain gorilla population is under threat from sustained fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Just over 800 gorillas remain in the world, with 210 living in the Virunga National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site. A rebel army calling itself M23 entered the gorillas' habitat in the early hours of 8 May, and set up an operating base at Runyoni, a strategic peak in the Rutshuru territory, close to the border of Uganda. For more than two weeks, the rebels have been under siege as FARDC, the Congolese national army, fires rockets, mortars and anti-aircraft guns towards Virunga, Africa's oldest national park.

Lieutenant Colonel Vianney Kazarama, an M23 spokesman, confirmed yesterday that the FARDC has carried out aerial bombardments in the gorilla sector, including a helicopter attack close to Bukima, where a patrol post is situated. "Even today, the FARDC has just attacked with helicopters and six combat tanks," he said.

On 9 May, the rebels gunned down one Virunga park ranger and two Congolese soldiers. Twelve rangers have been killed on duty since the start of last year, and there are now four major rebel factions and a number of splinter groups operating in the park.

Emmanuel de Mérode, the park's director, says he does not know how the gorillas have fared. He and his team wake up most days to the sound of exploding ordinance. On Thursday, two patrol groups sent to Bukima were forced to pull back when they came under heavy fire.

The clashes, which have displaced at least 40,000 people since the beginning of April, are playing out in one of the most diverse habitats in the world – including Africa's two most active volcanoes and the world's largest lava lake, low-altitude equatorial forest, and high-altitude glaciers and snowfields.

When DR Congo was embroiled in a similar rebellion between 2007 and 2008, the CNDP, a precursor to the M23 rebels, took control of the park's headquarters and nine mountain gorillas were killed as a result of the insecurity. Since then, tourism at the park has rocketed from zero to 3,000 people a year, but once again it is down to zero as the park is closed to visitors.

Despite this, conservation efforts at Virunga have been successful and the gorillas' population has more than doubled since the late 1980s.

The current conflict began in April when, following calls for his arrest, one of the leaders of the FARDC's forces, General Bosco Ntaganda, defected. Ntaganda, nicknamed the Terminator, has been wanted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for war crimes since 2006.

"He was one of the most powerful generals in eastern Congo, and now he's a man on the run," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Goma. After Ntaganda defected, around 600 troops left their positions and followed suit. The mutiny was initially believed to be in response to calls for Ntaganda's arrest but M23 later denied this, citing instead poor living conditions and low wages as grounds for revolt.

While the fighting shows no sign of abating, the gorillas are now at the centre of a regional dispute, as DR Congo suspects Rwanda of arming the largely Tutsi rebels, the ethnic group that fought against the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Defending the rights of Rwandan Tutsis in DR Congo, where there is still widespread persecution by Hutus, and maintaining control of an illicit trade in metals and minerals, are among the reasons why Rwanda would chose to support M23.

Although M23 is isolated in Virunga's dense tropical environment, security experts agree that the rebel faction could not remain this strong without the aid of a regional power. "We still hold all of our positions which represent a large part of Rutshuru territory," said Lt Col Kazarama.

On a remote hilltop one hour's trek from the village of Kachiru overlooking Virunga, Major Jean-Claude Kifua of the FARDC confirmed that the rebels still hold five positions in addition to their Runyoni base, including Mbuzi mountain, overlooking the gorilla sector, and Tshanzu, just north of it.

A few kilometres north of the gorilla sector, overlooked by both the FARDC and rebels armed with anti-aircraft guns, Joseph Tibeshu and his wife Veronika Nylabitamu are two of three remaining residents in what was once a busy village. It is now a frontline. Too weak to flee, the couple are looking after a woman who is bedridden. The shell of a rocket-propelled grenade lies by the wall of his house. Joseph, who does not know his age, has seen many wars in his life, but says this is the worst. "They are killing people. The rebels are all around us here," he said.

At a remote hospital in Rwanguba, Rutshuru, a nine-year-old girl lies in a small concrete room. She was raped while trying to flee the fighting. Others are being treated for bullet wounds. Lt Col Kazarama, confirmed "many" civilian deaths, as is often the case in the DR Congo.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee