Diary: Protecting mountain gorillas

15 September 2008 General News

In July 2007, armed men entered the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park and killed five critically endangered mountain gorillas at point-blank range, leaving the bodies where they fell.

Since September, rebel forces have controlled the area, threatening to kill any conservationists or gorilla rangers who attempted to enter the area.

Diddy and Innocent are long-serving rangers who have spent their working lives protecting the remaining gorillas in the war-torn region.

In this weekly diary, they describe life on conservation's frontline and the frustration of how recent events are hampering their efforts.



Hostilities have continued to escalate on the outskirts of Virunga National Park.

This week the fighting was especially intense in Kibirizi, a town just south of the Rwindi Ranger Station.

Just as in the area near the Gorilla Sector, the battle is between the Congolese army and Laurent Nkunda's rebels.

The government troops have taken heavy losses and the front is getting closer and closer to Rwindi.

As a consequence, park director Emmanuel de Merode took the decision to evacuate the families of the Rangers in Rwindi.


It has been a traumatic time for the families' young children

So, on Wednesday we drove up there with a truck to help transport them to safety.

When we arrived, we found the 220 wives and children huddled under some trees next to the UN peacekeepers' (Monuc) camp, where they felt more secure.

They had spent the night there out in the open and hadn't eaten in 24 hours. The children were especially exhausted and scared.

UN helicopters were flying overhead and we saw many Congolese soldiers arriving by foot. They had all fled Kibirizi, which by then had been taken over by Laurent Nkunda's rebels.

The families took whatever possessions they could carry and loaded them up onto the truck.

It took four round trips to take them to the relative safety of the towns of Kanyabayonga and Kiwanja.

The Rangers took the brave decision to stay at the station to hold the fort.

It was terrible to see the families in such awful conditions. The Rangers are the custodians of Africa's greatest national park and they are putting their lives on the line.

They and their families deserve a lot better.



This was a gig operation

On Monday, we started an operation to help move over 1,000 Congolese soldiers from the Central Sector of Virunga National Park.

They were with their families - about 6,000 people in total - and moved them to an area outside of the park for good.

This happened following successful talks between Army General Vainqueur Mayala and Park Director Emmanuel de Merode.

The whole operation required incredible logistics as it really was like moving an entire town.

It took three days and cost $10,000 - mainly for trucks and fuel.

WWF paid for the operation, at the request of Emmanuel and the Rangers.

This is a significant development for Virunga and its flora and fauna. Any human presence is detrimental to the conservation of Virunga, so this move by the army is a very positive step in the right direction.


The conservation group WWF paid the moving costs

The soldiers were primarily based in Rwindi, which is about 130km north/north-west of Goma, and Vitshumbi, on the southern shores of Lake Edward.

This was for strategic purposes - to defend the main road going north from Goma and to prevent attacks from the Mai Mai and FDLR rebels.

Most soldiers have now moved west of the park to Kanyabayonga.

Bear in mind that the Gorilla Sector, occupied by rebels loyal to dissident General Laurent Nkunda, is about 80km away from where these soldiers were.

The situation in the Gorilla Sector remains volatile - in the last couple days, we have been able to hear mortars and gunfire from our Rumangabo Station.


Heavy fighting broke out on Thursday between Laurent Nkunda's rebels and the army around the Gorilla Sector, specifically near the patrol post of Bukima and going down toward Rumangabo park station.

The situation had been calm for some months, but all this has just changed.

From Rumangabo we could hear the mortars being fired not so far away and reverberating through the hills.


Fighting has come closer to the gorilla sector in recent days

It is not clear who initially attacked whom - whether the rebels or the army attacked first. But one thing is for sure; the army is sending in major reinforcements.

We later left Rumangabo heading toward Goma, and came across a convoy of military vehicles carrying all kinds of heavy weaponry and soldiers.

Also in the convoy were tanks and armoured vehicles.

There are now rumours that following the fighting, the army may have re-taken control of the Bukima Patrol Post, which could potentially be positive in terms of access for the rangers.


The people around the area of the fighting are waiting expectantly. They have seen all of this many, many times before, and simply do not have anywhere else to go.

Some refugees (IDPs) who are from near Bukima, but are in temporary shelter at Rumangabo, have gone up there to see what is going on.

They aren't back yet though, so we are still waiting to hear on the ground. As usual during conflict, confusion prevails.

There is one thing for certain though. If we can hear the bombing and mortars, so can the gorillas.

If human populations around this area feel threatened, so do the gorillas.



The baby gorilla for sale turned out to be a young chimpanzee

We got a tip-off last Thursday that someone in Goma was trying to sell a baby gorilla.

We decided to set up a sting operation, where we would pose as wildlife dealers interested in buying the gorilla.

The local authorities gave us the go-ahead, so a team of rangers from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature was put on standby to make any arrests.

We arranged with a local contact to meet the men involved; we were introduced to them and they told us that they were acting as middle men for the owner of a baby mountain gorilla, which was being kept elsewhere in Goma.

After several hours of negotiating and discussions, the men took us to the house where the animal was being held.


The sellers were arrested, while the chimp was taken to a sanctuary

We were led to a small room in the house, where a man opened a basket revealing a baby chimpanzee.

Clearly the men did not know the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee. The chimp had been in that basket for three months, since it had been taken from its home in the Virunga National Park.

We arrested the three middle men and a soldier who were at the house. The chimp was confiscated and will be sent to a sanctuary.

It has now emerged that the man who owned the house is a Major in the Congolese army. It was not a surprise that Major "X" (we can't name him yet as a result of legal reasons) was involved in the trade of baby chimps.

He has been implicated in poaching incidents before; more importantly, there is strong evidence that he is a ring-leader in the illegal charcoal trade.

We hope that the judicial proceedings following this operation will finally bring Major X to justice. This would represent a massive breakthrough in our efforts to protect the gorilla sector.



Emmanuel (left) with Innocent and one of the massacred gorillas in July 2007

Big news for us this week; our friend and colleague Emmanuel de Merode has been appointed as the new head of Virunga National Park by the Congolese government.

Emmanuel was the former director of WildlifeDirect, the NGO that has helped raise funds for our work through our online blogs.

He is very experienced here in Virunga, and is well respected by the international community and the local Congolese alike.

We are absolutely thrilled with this development and we are looking forward to seeing Virunga move forward under his leadership.

With Emmanuel at the helm, it is hoped that we can make inroads into stabilising the park and regaining access to the Gorilla Sector, which is currently controlled by Laurent Nkunda's rebels.

At the end of the day, it will only be once peace returns to the area that we rangers will be able to get back to the job of monitoring and protecting the mountain gorillas. We reluctantly have become a paramilitary force, but we would much prefer to drop our weapons and simply return to being wildlife rangers.

Another challenge Emmanuel will have to tackle is the charcoal trade that is continuing to be a threat to the forests of Virunga.

Last month alone, we confiscated 702 bags of illegal charcoal at our roadblock at Kibati.

After being sworn in by the Military Tribunal in Goma, Emmanuel will step into the role on 13 August, taking command of the 680 rangers serving within the park.

We all wish him the best of luck.

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