Congo wildlife park to remain closed ‘until further notice’ after kidnap of British tourists

Virunga National Park chief warden warns region is ‘deeply affected by insecurity’ after gunmen ambush visitors

Tom Barnes
Monday 04 June 2018 21:53
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Virunga is now home to more than half of the world's endangered mountain gorillas
Virunga is now home to more than half of the world's endangered mountain gorillas

Congo’s Virunga National Park, which was closed last month following the ambush of a group of British visitors that left one ranger dead, will remain closed to tourists indefinitely.

Robert Jesty, Bethan Davies, and their Congolese driver were kidnapped in the park by gunmen three weeks ago before being released several days later, while park ranger Rachel Makissa Baraka, 25, was killed trying to defend the group.

The incident led Virunga’s management to initially close the park to tourists until 4 June, pending an investigation.

However, the park announced on Monday it would now not reopen to the general public “until further notice”.

“It is abundantly clear that the Virunga region is deeply affected by insecurity,” chief warden Emmanuel Merode wrote in a letter to the park's partners and clients.

“Much more robust measures are needed than in the past, this will require a very significant investment.”

Warfare between 1996 and 2003 in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Virunga is situated, left millions dead, mainly through hunger and starvation.

Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and is home more than half of the world’s critically-endangered mountain gorillas and has received more than 17,000 visitors since reopening to tourists in 2014.

But, armed militia still control large areas both in and around the park, and more than 175 rangers have been killed trying to protect it.

Its struggles with guerrilla groups, poachers, and corporations keen to conduct oil exploration under the park’s surface were subject of a 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary.

Virunga’s announcement comes just a week after wildlife authorities announced Africa’s population of mountain gorillas has increased by more than a quarter since 2010.

The latest census recorded 1,004 individuals, 604 living in Virunga and 400 in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

A study eight years’ previous found just 786 members of the species, 480 of which were in Virunga.

Additional reporting by agencies

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