Nkunda's CNDP rebels and Kabila's DRC government officials
tentatively agreed to work together in the gorilla sector.
The agreement came a month after Nkunda's rebels
seized the park's headquarters in nearby Rumangabo.
"The gorillas are safer now than they were before.
It was during the government control that so many were killed."
NKUNDA GEURRILLA GORILLA TOURS
Control of the gorilla sector fell into Nkunda's lap during an offensive
to seize strategic land near the Ugandan border.
They took the responsibility seriously, saying,
"For us, gorillas are worth more than diamonds".
To demonstrate their commitment, rebels have been organising visits,
a kind of guerrillas' gorilla tour
for journalists and others.
Sydney Morning Herald/LA Times, Jan 4, 2009
Past some of the greenest hills, poorest villages and roughest roads in Africa, a machete-wielding ranger hacks his way deep into the jungle until a canopy of giant ferns and bamboo eclipses the sun. Antelopes, elephants and hippos once thrived here in Africa's oldest national park. Decades of poaching have left little more than a few families of mountain gorillas. And civil war rages just kilometres away, the latest twist in a conflict that has ensnared eastern Congo for 12 years.
Unlike 250,000 of their human neighbours who have had to flee the latest fighting, the gorillas appear untouched so far. But they haven't escaped altogether. Aware that gorillas at times draw more global attention than the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rebels [Nkunda CNDP] and the Government [Kabila DRC] are engaged in a kind of guerrilla war over who should control the park. It's a struggle that bears many hallmarks of this region's conflict, including ethnic rivalry, resource exploitation and a scramble to curry international favour. When rebels [Nkunda CNDP] seized control of the Virunga National Park's gorilla sanctuary in 2007, rangers who cared for the animals were caught in the middle. Some fled with Government troops [Kabila FARDC]; others stayed behind and continued doing their jobs.
After a two-hour hike, the ranger, one of those who stayed, stops suddenly and makes a throat-clearing grunt - something like a noise you would make to catch the attention of day-dreaming shop assistant. "A-hem!" To the giant silverback seated nine metres away, it translates roughly the same, a kind of "excuse me" to alert the animal that humans are approaching. The bored-looking gorilla glances up and grunts back, giving rangers the OK to come closer. A female, who rangers say is pregnant and called Lulengo, reclines on a patch of grass, picking nits off her shoulder. The dominant silverback, with an enormous head and hands, noisily crunches bamboo trunks in his yellow teeth as easily as if they were celery stalks. Another female scurries away with a year-old baby clutching her back. The family is one of seven living here. Mountain gorillas once numbered in the thousands. Only about 700 remain worldwide, including 200 in Virunga. The rest were poached for food or trophies, such as gorilla-hand ashtrays. A few families have become popular wildlife attractions. In neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, tourists pay $725 an hour to observe one of man's closest cousins.
Concerned that gorillas might disappear completely from the wild, the United Nations has declared 2009 as the Year of the Gorilla and developed plans to protect them. Ten gorillas were killed in 2007 before the Congolese Wildlife Authority pulled out of the gorilla sanctuary, and rebels under Laurent Nkunda took over. Some argue that Congo's gorillas have been safer under rebel control - not because rebels are enlightened animal-lovers but because unpaid and hungry soldiers [Kabila FARDC] and militiamen [Hutu FDLR & Mai-Mai] hunted animals for meat and destroyed habitat by engaging in illegal charcoal production for cash. Virunga's previous park director was fired and arrested in 2007 after being implicated in a ring that was believed responsible for the killings of five gorillas before the rebels [Nkunda CNDP] seized the park. The massacre apparently was intended as a warning to officials to halt their campaign against poaching and deforestation.
"The gorillas are safer now than they were before," said Pierre-Canisius Kanamahalagi, one of about 30 rangers who stayed behind. "It was during the government control that so many were killed." Guide Benjamin Nsana, 40, said six governments and rebel groups have controlled the park during the 15 years he has worked there. "We're not political," he said. "We work with whoever controls the park." Rangers who stayed behind insist the gorillas are prospering under their care, with several recent births and the discovery, they say, of a new family. Newly installed park director Emmanuel de Merode, a long-time conservationist and Belgian national, said such reports must be verified, but he agreed that the gorillas had fared better than people and other animals. While thousands of residents have been forced into displacement camps and the hippo population has plummeted from 30,000 to 300, the number of mountain gorillas here has increased 19 per cent since 1996 despite the conflict and the poaching, thanks largely to conservation efforts. "It's been an incredible success story," said De Merode, who was hired by the Government in August to restore the park authority's credibility. "Wildlife has suffered a lot, but there are a few exceptions, and it looks like mountain gorillas are among the exceptions."
Rebels [Nkunda CNDP] and Government officials [Kabila DRC] tentatively agreed for the first time in November to work together in the gorilla sector. The agreement came a month after rebels [Nkunda CNDP] seized the park's headquarters in nearby Rumangabo. De Merode hopes to dispatch 41 park rangers to join the 30 who already work in the gorilla sector. He also plans to re-establish five 24-hour patrol posts. But it remains unclear whether the Government [Kabila DRC] and rebels [Nkunda CNDP] will be able to set aside their differences. Park officials questioned the qualifications and political motives of rangers who stayed behind. "These rangers are not fully trained in gorilla-monitoring," De Merode said. "They've been a little cavalier."
Government officials [Kabila DRC] pressured all but one international conservationist group to suspend their work with the gorillas after the rebel [Nkunda CNDP] takeover and discouraged tourism, saying the proceeds would fund the insurgency. Park officials have also accused rebels of killing and eating of two gorillas last year. Rebels [Nkunda CNDP] contend that their soldiers are too disciplined to ever hurt gorillas. They accuse park officials of corruption and mismanagement, saying they exaggerate the threat to gorillas in a bid for international support. "They need to lie for their fund-raising," said Babou Amani, deputy spokesman for Nkunda's movement, National Congress for the Defence of the People [CNDP]. He said control of the gorilla sector fell into the [Nkunda CNDP] rebels' lap during an offensive to seize strategic land near the Ugandan border. But he said they took the responsibility seriously. "For us, gorillas are worth more than diamonds," Amani said. To demonstrate their commitment, rebels [Nkunda CNDP] have been organising visits, a kind of guerrillas' gorilla tour for journalists and others. A recent trip suggested that rangers are well-intentioned, if not always well-trained. They observed many of the rules for human interaction, such as limiting visits to an hour. A sick ranger stayed behind to avoid spreading contagion. On the other hand, rangers came within touching distance of a female gorilla rather than maintaining the recommended 3.6 metre distance. Nsana, one of the rangers supervising the tour, said he hoped the Government [Kabila DRC] and rebels would set aside their differences so all rangers could return to work. "If everyone joined hands, that would be good for the Government and it would help us get more international aid," Nsana said. "Most of all, it would be better for the gorillas."
Rangers v Hutu rebels: fight to save rare gorillas (A bloody battle is raging in Eastern Congo over the illegal charcoal trade that is killing the region's great apes). Independent, Aug 6, 2009
National Geographic Update, April 2009
Last July National Geographic reported on a dire situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park. In 2007, as a warning to the warden who'd thwarted a thriving illegal charcoal trade, local men killed seven of the park's mountain gorillas. Only 720 of the animals are left in the world. Soon additional violence in the park between rebels and government troops drove out Virunga's rangers entirely, and the mountain gorillas were left unprotected. Now the rangers are back. Virunga park director Emmanuel de Merode negotiated their return with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. "It's a case of conservation ahead of politics," says photographer Brent Stirton, who has long covered the conflict. And the conservation news is good. Rangers discovered that five goirlla babies had been born in the 15 months since they'd last seen their charges.
NKUNDA ARREST ENDANGERS GORILLAS
Congo Warlord Nkunda's Arrest Puts Gorillas' Future in Turmoil, National Geographic News, Jan 23, 2009
The political future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park — home to about 200 of the world's roughly 680 mountain gorillas — was thrown into turmoil Thursday night with the arrest of Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. Nkunda's rebel movement had held sway over much of the region in which Virunga is located since August 2007. When the rebels — called the National Congress for the People's Defense (CNDP) — took over the park, the government rangers working to protect the gorillas were forced to evacuate the area. After a 15-month-long absence, the rangers were able to return in November 2008 after the park's director, Emmanuel de Merode, struck a deal directly with Nkunda to allow his rangers to resume their work. It's unclear how that arrangement — and the protection of the gorillas — will be affected by Nkunda's arrest....In an interview last month with National Geographic News in Bunagana, Nkunda talked extensively about his plans to safeguard the gorillas and develop Virunga National Park as a tourist destination. Likening Virunga and its crowd-pleasing apes to natural resources, Nkunda said, "In other places they have petrol. We have the gorillas. The park is like our petrol; the gorillas are our fuel. These gorillas will remain and the national park will remain forever. We have to protect them."...
"There's been a very dramatic shift over the last 48 hours … the Congolese government forces have established authority over [the area]," said de Merode, the Virunga park director. Congolese government forces have been accused in the past of taking part in the illegal charcoal trade, which represents a major threat to the mountain gorillas and their habitat. Much of the charcoal is made from old-growth forest harvested inside Virunga National Park. It is unclear exactly who is now in charge militarily in the Virunga region. De Merode plans to travel Saturday to Rutshuru, a former rebel [Nkunda CNDP] stronghold near the park, where he will meet with the traditional chief of the area. "The chief asked me to accompany him to reassure the populations in the central part of the park," de Merode said. It's been only two months since the rangers returned to the park, and de Merode says it's critically important for them to be able to continue their work. "The thing about any national park is that it takes many years of hard work to build them up, to recover them, to reestablish them as healthy national parks, but it only takes a few days to destroy them," he said. "So we have to be there all the time to avoid that happening. At the moment our work is completely uninterrupted by these political events. But, he added, "the difficulties that we're facing are the same as the ones we'll be facing next week, next month, next year. We just have to keep going."
NKUNDA SAVED CONGO GORILLAS. Nkunda Last Interview, YouTube, Jan 3, 2009
....There were evidences that gorillas were killed in an area under control of the government forces. And after that, some gorillas were even found in Goma when some of their - the one who was in charge of the regional Nature Conversation Bureau - was selling gorillas in Goma. And an investigation was heard by Kinshasa and the provincial director of ICCN was arrested.... But there were now two group of gorillas at that time because we were in this area. I was only controlling this area under the three mountain you are seeing there. And the gorillas in our area were safe. But on the side of Rumangabo - that's where gorillas were killed. And this area was not under our control. We attacked Rumangabo only the last year - in August. But the two years - and even before - Rumangabo, and this gorilla site of Bukima, was under the government control.... I met some journalists from National Geographic magazine. They were here. They did somehow a report. It was... balanced.... there were many, many true things. Because they followed, also, the investigation about the director. And when they met me I told them: Go and see where we are, and where gorilla were killed. And ask - instead of telling it from in America, from in UK, from .... You see. It's not normal; go and see. And they came....What I found in them - it was this volunteer, this will to come and see - and for me it was....Whenever you can be, whenever you can want to protect, the best way to protect is to go close to your.... If you want to protect the gorilla you have to come where gorillas are - not tell the story from America, from UK, from.... from Europe. No. That's what I got from these journalists from National Geographic magazine. They came here and I showed them that they are going to be secured. And even when they slept in our defence, gorillas came in the morning. And they saw gorillas in the camp because I took some rangers there. They were doing training to my soldiers to know how to take care of gorillas because they are - as they told me - gorillas are fragile. And they can die from only a small thing you give him. And my soldiers were trained in that matter - those who were working in this area. So gorillas were very kind to them - as when they were coming they saw that they are not aggressive. Gorillas were thinking that soldiers are rangers - as far as they were very close to them. And my soldiers knew how to deal with them. So these journalists from National Geographic magazine slept in our defence. In the morning, early, they heard someone doing this (scratching) on the tent. And when they opened, it was gorillas. Then they called me - because I was in Masisi - and they said: What we saw is all that you told us. And I reply, I say: That is why I say to you: Go and see - not tell from Goma or Kinshasa; go and see....
NKUNDA SAY CONGO OWNS RESOURCES. Nkunda Last Interview, YouTube, Jan 3, 2009
...Because now we've got many new families of gorillas. And even they are...they have many children... Yea, 10% of growth. It was established by the new director of ICCN, the provincial director of ICCN, a Belgian called De Merode Emmanuel. He came here and he was very surprised because when I met him I told him if you came in Congo to protect gorillas, don't take care of what you want, or because you are appointed by the government. I said there's no problem you coming to protect the gorillas. I'll receive you like that, not like a governmental operative, but like someone coming to help to conserve the nature....And I always tell them - even the population - to protect the gorillas because the only wealth we can have in North Kivu is these gorillas. And my soldiers knows very well that. And this is my born area. And I'm a local chief here. If I was not in the army you would have found me in Bunagana as a local chief....These gorillas are in my born area and in my local responsibility area. I have their interest to protect them and to let them grow....When I tell you that you protect gorillas, you are protecting also the wealth for Jomba, for Rutshuru, for North Kivu. yeah. And to protect the gorillas, you are going to also develop these people, so that they can understand that gorillas are not a threat against them, but it's wealth....
Gorilla warfare. (the gorillas are safer under Nkunda than they were under Kabila). Sydney Morning Herald, January 4, 2009
Rangers return to protect Virunga gorillas (species transcends political differences). AP, Nov 21, 2008
CONGO 500-POUND GORILLA CHINA
Nkunda attacks Congo deal with China (state scandously sold-out resources). AFP, Nov 21, 2008
No refuge for Congo's gorillas ("The animals we followed every day are now roaming without protection"). Guardian, Nov 13, 2008
Nkunda rebels seized Congo gorilla park (not harming rangers or gorillas). National Geographic, Oct 27, 2008
Gunmen kill ranger in east Congo gorilla park. AllAfrica, Aug 31, 2007
GOMA, Congo (Reuters) - Suspected Rwandan Hutu rebels killed a park ranger in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in the latest attack on guards who protect rare mountain gorillas in a national park, officials said on Friday. The attack late on Thursday on the ranger station at Kabaraza, 95 km (60 miles) north of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, followed the killings of five of the endangered gorillas in recent weeks in the Virunga National Park.... The ranger died from his wounds, and a worker at the camp was injured by a bullet in the neck. Houses were looted. Other rangers who drove the attackers off said they spoke Rwandan and were believed to be members of the largely Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebel group which operates in eastern Congo.... Thursday's attack came in the same turbulent area of eastern Congo where government troops have been battling soldiers loyal to a [Tutsi] renegade general, Laurent Nkunda....See CONGO WRONG ON NKUNDA
Murders in the Mist (100 rangers have been killed trying to protect the animals). TheTimes, Aug 11, 2007
Silverback gorillas killed in Congo (7 murders in 7 months). Telegraph, Aug 9, 2007
WEIGHING IN ON SILVERBACK
VISITING RWANDA'S RARE GORILLAS
GORILLAS CALLING TO RWANDA
NO ONE LOVED GORILLAS MORE: DIAN FOSSEY LETTERS FROM THE MIST
by Camilla de la Bedoyere, photos by Bob Campbell, forward by Dr Jane Goodall, 2005
Here for the first time, Dian's story is told through the letters she wrote to her friends and family, set in context by a compelling narrative. Bob Campbell, the National Geographic photograher who worked closely with Dian, captured the unique and extraordinary images.
VIRUNGA: THE PASSION OF DIAN FOSSEY, by Farley Mowat, 1987
Virunga is the startling true account of Dian Fossey's life based on her private correspondence, journals, camp records, personal papers and interviews with her colleagues, friends and enemies.
GORILLAS IN THE MIST, by Dian Fossey, 1983
In Dian Fossey's own words, here is the riveting account of her thirteen years in the remote Africa rain forests with the greatest of the great apes.
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~