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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own