Congo’s rangers locate first mountain gorilla families in rebel-held territory

| 7th August 2012
A quarter of the 800 Mountain Gorillas still living in the wild live in Virunga National Park.
Rangers have detected gorilla families in Virunga National Park for the first time since fighting broke out between M23 rebels and government forces earlier this year

Last Tuesday, twenty park rangers and 15 local trackers began a search for the missing mountain gorilla families in Congo’s Virunga National Park, finding four of the original seven-strong gorilla groups. Over two months of violent fighting between M23 rebels and Congolese armed forces in and around the park’s Gorilla Sector had, until last week, prevented rangers from monitoring the critically endangered mountain gorillas in Africa’s oldest national park, causing concern for their health and safety.

Eight teams spread out through the forests from their base at Bukima Patrol Post searching for signs of the gorillas, some which have not been seen in over three months. Rangers were able to locate the Humba, Rugendo, and Munyaga families, and part of the Kabirizi family, which appears to have split. All seem healthy, but a more detailed assessment and individual counting will take place over the next few weeks.

Virunga National Park’s Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode said: “While the security conditions remain precarious for our staff, the fact that we’ve been able to locate a significant number of the missing mountain gorillas is a strong sign of hope that we will be able to secure this critically important population through the current period of armed conflict”.

The gorilla monitoring operation, which was scheduled to begin last week following authorization by government authorities and M23 rebel commanders, was postponed when the conflict escalated on 24 July, and intense combat in and around the park headquarters prevented the park’s rangers from beginning the planned search.

“It was truly amazing to see the gorillas again after so long and so much fighting,” said Innocent Mburanumwe, warden of the park’s Gorilla Sector. “The gorillas circled us and several reached out to touch and smell us. They had not seen us for a very long time but seemed calm and curious.”

Local trackers have been working with park rangers to locate the gorillas.  These same trackers have been providing critical information on the welfare of the mountain gorillas throughout the ongoing conflict.

Over the past two months Bukima Patrol Post and the surrounding area became a battleground between M23 rebels and FARDC Congolese army, with M23 currently in control. The patrol post, which has been damaged in the conflict, was the main starting point for the mountain gorilla tourist treks before the park closed all tourist attractions in April.

Virunga National Park’s gorilla families live in the mountainous forests of the Virunga Massif.  The park is home to approximately 200 mountain gorillas, 25% of the total remaining in the world. The park’s gorilla monitoring teams will continue the search for the remaining mountain gorilla families if the security situation remains stable. Rangers will individually identify each member of the family and assess their health status as mountain gorillas are particularly vulnerable to disease. Once the initial census is completed, ranger teams will continue to patrol the park to remove all snares and protect the gorillas from poachers.

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