Gorillas benefit from Congo ceasefire

23 March 2007 General News

Augustin Kambale squatted on his haunches, eyes down, and edged through the thick bush towards the brooding silverback.

Mountain gorilla, Gorillas benefit from Congo ceasefire
Under threat: more than half the world's mountain
gorilla population live within the Congo

In a half-second, without warning, the huge, muscular gorilla launched with a shriek at Mr Kambale, a senior ranger in Virunga National Park in the forested mountains of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

"He is only playing, he is showing his force, he is trying to intimidate us," said an unflinching Mr Kambale, 30, as the silverback, named Kabirizi, lumbered back to his family.

Until late last month, the park's south was too dangerous for outsiders to visit as rebels swarmed through its gloomy clearings and down its vine-clogged tracks. Even rangers like Mr Kambale, from the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), Congo's wildlife service, had been forced to flee, leaving behind the 380 critically endangered mountain gorillas, more than half of the 700 left in the world.

An estimated 120 of Mr Kambale's colleagues have been killed protecting the wildlife since 1996.

But now a ceasefire has been signed between the authorities and a dissident army general, Laurent Nkunda, whose troops controlled much of the land bordering the reserve.

 Congo map, Gorillas benefit from Congo ceasefire

His forces are believed to have been behind the slaughter of two silverback gorillas in January. Four other silverbacks are still missing.

Other rebel groups including Mai Mai militia and a hardcore rump of Rwandan Hutus responsible for the 1994 genocide, are still hiding in the reserve's empty corners. But efforts to disarm them are bearing fruit.

In a forest clearing on the edge of the park's southern Mikeno sector, three hours drive along rocky tracks northeast of the provincial capital, Goma, the turnaround since the ceasefire is striking.

Less than two months ago, this clearing was a forward base for Nkunda's troops. The attack on the two silverbacks was launched from here, conservationists believe.


But by early April, instead of a rebel command centre, this will be a nine-tent camp housing a high-tech gorilla monitoring station for ICCN rangers and conservationists from the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

Close to the clearing, which is to be named Camp Karema after one of the silverbacks slaughtered in January, one of the eight females in Kibirizi's 32-strong family is suckling a three month old baby, named Kabila after Congo's new president.

Another family nearby has a two week old baby - to have two infants born so close together is rare in the 3,000 sq mile Virunga National Park, Africa's oldest such reserve, created in 1925.

Near Camp Karema, there are plans to rebuild a rundown five room wooden hut which was once a base-camp for tourists trekking into the jungle to see the mountain gorillas.

"If this peace lasts a long time, we know we can do our work and the gorillas will be safe for the first time in so many years," Mr Kambale said yesterday, when The Daily Telegraph became the first outsiders to visit since Nkunda's troops pulled out.

The problem is that Congo's wildlife service is not a key funding priority for the country's first elected post-war government, which took office in November faced with the challenges of rebuilding war-shattered health, education and roads infrastructures.

The ICCN has little money to buy vehicles and equip or pay its rangers.

Instead, the boots on Mr Kambale's feet, the rations his team cook at night, even their salaries, will soon be funded by animal-lovers around the world using a pioneering online donation programme.

Following a successful pilot further north in the Virunga National Park, the British-registered charity Wildlife Direct is linking with ICCN to channel cash from web-surfing conservationists straight to the men on the ground.

This, coupled with increased security, could see the thousands of tourists a year who pay £200 a day or more to see mountain gorillas in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda come to Congo instead.

"There is a strong hope for the future now," said Paulin Ngobobo, ICCN's director of Virunga's southern sectors.

"It must not be a naive hope, but we do have every chance of success and we must work to minimise the remaining threats and seize the opportunities that are there now."

Wildlife caught in the wars

Bonobos Gentle apes found only in forests of northern Congo. Estimated at 100,000 in 1980, perhaps a tenth of that by 1990.

Elephants Savannah elephants attacked by Mai Mai in Virunga National Park, 17 of 300 killed in 2006. In Sudan, 11,000 tusks found at ivory market.

Rhinos Only four rare white rhinos in Congo's Garamba National Park after two decades of civil war. Wiped out in Uganda and Congo.

Giant sable antelope Was thought extinct after Angola's civil war, but documented sightings since.

Hippos Fewer than 20 now in Virunga National Park.

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