Endangered gorillas eaten by rebel troops

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Rebels in eastern Congo have killed and eaten two silverback mountain gorillas, say conservationists, who fear that more of the endangered animals may have been slaughtered in the lawless region.

Only about 700 mountain gorillas remain in the world, 380 of them spread across a range of volcanic mountains straddling the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

One dismembered gorilla corpse was found on Tuesday in a pit latrine in Congo's Virunga National Park, a few hundred yardsfrom a park patrol post at Bikenge that was abandoned because of rebel attacks, according to the Africa Conservation Fund, which is based in London. Another silverback was killed in the same area on 5 January, said the group, quoting conservationists in the field.

The conservation group blamed rebels loyal to a local warlord, Laurent Nkunda, for the latest killing, and a warden said rebels had also killed the other gorilla for its meat. Nkunda is a renegade army soldier who commands thousands of fighters in the vast country's east.

Richard Leakey, the conservationist credited with putting an end to the slaughter of elephants in Kenya during the 1980s, said: "The survival of these last remaining mountain gorillas should be one of humanity's greatest priorities. Their future lies with a small number of very brave rangers risking their lives with very little support from the outside world."

Paulin Ngobobo, a senior warden at the park, described finding the animal's remains on an internet blog.

"We've learned a lot: the gorilla had in fact been eaten for meat. His name was Karema, another solitary silverback that had been born into a habituated group - meaning that he had grown to trust humans enough to let them come to within touching distance," Mr Ngobobo wrote.

Robert Muir of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, who was with Mr Ngobobo, said: "We need to impress on Nkunda and his men that it is inexcusable to destroy national and world heritage of such critical importance."

The last remaining hippo populations in Congo are in Virunga and are also on the verge of being wiped out. Conservationists have blamed rebels for slaughtering them, and say more than 400 were killed last year, mostly for food. Only 900 are left, down from 22,000 in 1998.

Virunga park has been ravaged by poachers and deforestation for more than a decade. The 1994 Rwandan genocide saw millions of refugees spill across the border into Congo, marking the beginning of an era of unrest, lawlessness and clashes between militias and myriad rebel groups.