Continued Fighting Threatens Mountain Gorillas, Staff of Virunga National Park


The status of Virunga National Park's mountain gorillas remains unknown as rebels continue to occupy the park's gorilla sector

VIRUNGA HEARTLAND, November 16, 2012 -- This past May, the rebel group known as M23 entered the Mikeno Sector of Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC's) Virunga National Park. This sector, also known as the gorilla sector, is home to a number of critically endangered mountain gorillas, including six groups habituated to human presence for tourism and many more unhabituated groups and solitary males. The gorilla sector is situated around the Bunagana border between Uganda and the DRC.

As a result of the region's instability, routine monitoring of the mountain gorillas has been suspended, but the park's staff has attempted to check in on the habituated gorillas on a number of occasions. "Constant monitoring of these animals is critical to their protection as it allows us to address potential threats, and to check the health status of gorillas that might fall victim to illness or injury from traps set up by poachers," said Craig Sholley, mountain gorilla expert and vice president for philanthropy and marketing at African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

Earlier this week, the Ugandan government officially closed the Bunagana border, which the M23 rebels were reportedly using as a supply route and income stream from fees levied to traders. The rebels were also using their location in Virunga's forest to operate unsanctioned gorillas treks for international tourists.

Recent reports state that there has been renewed fighting between the M23 rebels and the Congolese army along the border of the park's gorilla sector. The violence threatens these endangered mountain gorillas and other biodiversity as well as park rangers, their families, and the communities who are caught in the middle of the crossfire.

"With the gorillas' populations already threatened, we hope security in the region is realized soon so we can reinstate the daily monitoring," Sholley said.

AWF works with Virunga National Park to conserve the park's mountain gorillas through the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, a coalition of AWF, Fauna & Flora International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Download the Factsheet: Virunga National Park in Crisis and/or see below.

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Virunga National Park, Africa's oldest national park (established in 1925) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, is home to approximately 200 of the world's mountain gorillas and a small population of Grauer's eastern lowland gorillas. Formerly known as Albert National Park, Virunga lies in eastern DR Congo and covers 7,800 square kilometers. The park is managed by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN)

Virunga NP Rangers: Some 274 park rangers protect Virunga National Park in eastern DR Congo, a region affected by a 12-year civil war and political instability. The park is home to mountain gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, okapi, forest elephants and buffalo, among other wildlife. The rangers have remained active in protecting the park. Poaching, wildlife trafficking and habitat destruction remain the key threats to the survival of the wildlife in the park.

Mountain Gorillasare critically endangered, with approximately 880 remaining in the world, about 480 in the Virunga Massif (shared by DRC, Rwanda and Uganda) and 400 in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda. The results of a census conducted in the spring of 2010 show that the number of Mountain Gorillas living in the tri-national forested area of which Virunga forms a part increased by 26.3% between 2003 and 2010 - an average growth rate of 3.7% per annum. Virunga National Park's Gorilla Sector is currently under the control of rebel group M23.

Mountain Gorillas and Conflict: In the last twenty years, at least 23 of the Virunga Massif mountain gorillas were killed due to armed conflict since 1990. Most notably in July 2007, a massacre of mountain gorillas in the Rugendo group Virunga National Park in which five were confirmed dead, one infant presumed dead, and one infant orphaned. Tourism in Virunga National Park, including mountain gorilla tourism, was seen as a hope for the park in recent years, with over 5000 tourists visiting the park in the three previous years. The movement of the M23 rebels into the gorilla sector, and further instability in North Kivu, forced the park to officially suspend all tourist activities in the park in May 2012. Tourism remains officially closed.

The Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) and its rangers work throughout the country to protect the National Parks of Congo and their wildlife from poachers, rebel groups, illegal miners and land invasions. Rangers worked throughout the civil war to protect the five parks of eastern DRC, rarely receiving a salary, with over 130 killed in the last 15 years in Virunga National Park alone, and as recently as October 2012.