Congo Violence Reaches Endangered Mountain Gorillas

December 16th, 2008 - by admin

Jeffrey Gettleman / The New York Times – 2008-12-16 00:31:33

BULENGO, Congo (November 18, 2008) — Jean-Marie Serundori wakes up every morning with gorillas on his mind.

“I wash my face, I stare at the mountains and I think of them,” he said. “They are like our cousins.”

But Mr. Serundori, a Congolese wildlife ranger entrusted with protecting some of the most majestic — and most endangered — animals on the planet, is far from the broad-backed mountain gorillas he loves.

Instead, he is stuck in a wet and filthy camp for internally displaced people where the only wildlife are the cockroaches that scurry across the mud floors. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of people left idle and destitute by eastern Congo’s most recent spasm of violence, and the consequences in this case may be dire and irreversible.

Eastern Congo is home to almost a third of the world’s last 700 wild mountain gorillas (the rest are in nearby areas of Rwanda and Uganda). Now, there are no trained rangers to protect them. More than 240 Congolese game wardens have been run off their posts, including some who narrowly escaped a surging rebel advance last month and slogged through the jungle for three days living off leaves and scoopfuls of mud for hydration.

“We figured if the gorillas can eat leaves, so can we,” said Sekibibi Desire, who is staying in a tent near the other rangers.

This is just the latest crisis within a crisis. Congo’s gorillas happen to live in one of the most contested, blood-soaked pieces of turf in one of the most contested, blood-soaked corners of Africa. Their home, Virunga National Park, is high ground — with mist-shrouded mountains and pointy volcanoes — along the porous Congo-Rwanda border, where rebels are suspected of smuggling in weapons from Rwanda. Last year in Virunga, 10 gorillas were killed, some shot in the back of the head, execution style, park officials said.

The park used to be a naturalist’s paradise, home to more than 2,000 species of plants, 706 types of birds and 218 varieties of mammals, including three great apes: the mountain gorilla, the lowland gorilla and chimpanzees.

Now Virunga is a war zone.

Rebel soldiers command the hilltops. Government soldiers fire mortars at them, blowing up precious gorilla habitat that is rapidly disappearing anyway because of deforestation and an illegal charcoal trade.

“Armed groups hide in the park, they train in the park, and most importantly, they eat in the park,” said Samantha Newport, a spokeswoman for Virunga National Park.

Ms. Newport said that two years ago, at one of the lakes in the park, a local militia went on a hippopotamus-hunting rampage, machine-gunning hundreds of hippopotamuses for their meat.

“The lake turned red,” she said.

Eastern Congo has been stuck in a vise of bloodshed for more than a decade. The trouble began in 1994, with the genocide in Rwanda, which killed 800,000 people and sent waves of refugees into Congo, along with bloodthirsty militias. Since then, various armed groups and neighboring nations have battled for control of this stunningly beautiful land, loaded with gold, diamonds and other precious resources. Last month, a rebel force widely suspected of being supported by Rwanda routed government troops near the strategic city of Goma and was poised to capture it, when the rebels declared a cease-fire.

That cease-fire remains shaky. On Sunday, the same day that the rebels’ leader, Laurent Nkunda, vowed to stick to the truce, heavy fighting broke out north of Goma. Congolese troops fired rockets. The rebels responded with mortar bombs. Once again, game wardens were caught in the middle. Some of their families have even been shot.

Last month, the 14-year-old daughter of a ranger was shot in the stomach during a firefight near a ranger post deep in the forest. “I put her in my arms and just ran,” said her father, Mberabagabo Rukundaguhaya. “I thought she was dead.” She lived, though it is not clear when her family will be able to go home.

Officials with Virunga National Park are urging the rebels and government troops to allow them to return to work. The rebels insist the gorillas are safe.

“We are protecting them,” said Babu Amani, a rebel spokesman.

Mr. Serundori said that in his 20 years as a ranger, he has seen the gorillas more than 100 times.

“But what always impresses me is how fragile they are,” he said. “They could be wiped out — in a minute.”

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