Militia allow rangers in to park for gorilla census in eastern Congo
WILDLIFE rangers in eastern Congo hope to begin searching this week for dozens of mountain gorillas which have not been seen since rebels took control of an area where the critically endangered primates live.
Virunga National Park is home to a quarter of the world’s estimated 800 remaining mountain gorillas, but rangers had to evacuate the area in May because of heavy fighting between the recently formed M23 rebel group and government forces.
Park director Emmanuel de Merode yesterday said he was relieved the rebels had agreed to allow rangers back into the park to conduct a census.
But he added: “We have had to delay 24 hours because of the shelling that took place this morning. There is heavy fighting around the park headquarters.”
Earlier this month, family members of rangers were evacuated from the park’s headquarters, about 30 miles from the city of Goma, because of security concerns.
More than 130 rangers have been killed during violent conflicts in eastern Congo in the aftermath of neighbouring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
In 2007, the fragile habitat in the Central African highlands also became off-limits for more than a year because of violence, though a subsequent census later found that the park’s gorilla population had grown during that period.
Militias and rebel groups plague mineral-rich eastern Congo, and the violence intensified earlier this year with the formation of a group calling itself M23. The fighting has forced more than 200,000 people from their homes since April.
A report by UN experts accuses neighbouring Rwanda of helping to create, recruit for and arm the new rebel group, a charge that Rwanda has vigorously denied.
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