New fears for Congo gorillas as rebels seize Virunga reserve

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The Independent Online

Rebel forces loyal to a renegade general in the Democratic Republic of Congo have seized control of large swaths of conservation reserve, placing the rare mountain gorillas that live there in grave danger.

Conservationists fear for the safety of the 380 gorillas living in the forests of the Virunga National Park, in the North Kivu province. There are only 700 of the gorillas worldwide.

North Kivu has been the scene of violent clashes between the Congolese army and forces loyal to General Laurent Nkunda. The army claims to have killed 28 rebel soldiers in recent weeks, while the general described the situation as "a state of war" over the weekend.

Conservationists reported that General Nkunda's forces surrounded ranger stations in the park on Monday, seizing rifles and equipment and forcing the evacuation of park workers and their families. The UN refugee agency estimates that 170,000 people have fled the fighting in North Kivu in the past year.

It is thought that General Nkunda's forces entered the park in pursuit of Rwandan Hutu rebels, who have bases there. His forces, which are frequently accused of human rights violations, purport to be acting in the interests of ethnic Tutsis. General Nkunda maintains that the Congolese government is collaborating with the Hutu-led FDLR, a group accused of involvement with the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.

The current fighting appears to have further escalated yesterday, when it was claimed that the army used a helicopter gunship against rebel troops in the region for the first time, killing 50.

The difficulties of protecting endangered species in such a region are clear, and five national parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo are listed by Unesco as World Heritage Sites "in danger". In Virunga, nine mountain gorillas have been killed since the beginning of the year. In January two lone males were shot in an attack which was widely attributed to General Nkunda's troops. A female was then killed in June, and three females and a male slaughtered in late July. It is thought these attacks were carried out by charcoal traders, who are illegally felling the park's trees for fuel. The Congolese government has brought in various measures to try to protect wildlife, yet the job of policing the parks has become increasingly dangerous, with more than 120 rangers killed by poachers and rebels in the past 10 years.