VIRUNGA HEARTLAND, DRC--A newly released census of DRC's mountain gorillas shows a surprising rise, with 10 babies born in the last 16 months. Despite continuing conflict, gorillas in groups habituated to humans increased to 81, from 72 in 2007, according to ranger estimates.
The news came on the heels of the arrest of rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a development that, despite the encouraging census results, has raised new concerns about the fate of the DRC's highly endangered mountain gorillas. Virunga National Park in the DRC, together with Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, is home to about half of the 720 mountain gorillas that remain in the wild.
Nkunda heads the rebel movement The National Congress for the People's Defense (CNDP), which took control of much of Virunga National Park in 2007 and the area where the gorillas live in 2008.
Hundreds of rangers and their families were forced to evacuate, leaving the gorillas unmonitored and vulnerable to poachers and other threats. Throughout the conflict, the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), a coalition of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna and Flora International, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, worked with its Congo government partner ICCN (Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation) and park authorities to support the rangers and work towards a resolution allowing renewed access to the area's gorilla population.
Under terms negotiated between park authorities and Nkunda, the rangers were allowed to resume their duties this November. Fortunately, as the recent census shows, the gorillas appear to have been unharmed.
Nkunda's arrest on January 22 in neighboring Rwanda adds a new twist to a long and complex conflict that has affected the entire region, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. It is unclear how the government action will affect the gorillas and operations in the park.
"This is a political battle that has nothing to do with the gorillas, yet they are at risk of becoming caught up in it. There is hope in that all parties seem to agree that the gorillas are a national resource that must be protected. Still, if the political stakes are ratcheted up further, there is a risk that the gorillas could be left unmonitored or worse," says Eugene Rutagarama, Director of IGCP.
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