Park rangers still need support in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo

NEW YORK (January 7, 2009)— Protecting gorillas in Virunga National Park relies on supporting the rangers who have already sacrificed much to save the park’s mountain gorillas and other wildlife, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has pledged $15,000 in support for the park guards and their families.

In the latest bout of insecurity in the war-torn region of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the park rangers of Africa’s oldest park were forced from their headquarters by rebels who invaded the protected area, home to the world-famous mountain gorillas. As of November 21, the rangers have returned to their headquarters and are in the process of re-assessing the status of the park’s gorilla population, but they still need support to protect Virunga National Park.

“The current situation is a human tragedy of immense proportions. At the same time, preserving protected areas that are experiencing poaching and warfare means keeping a constant conservation presence on the ground,” said Dr. Andrew Plumptre, Director of WCS’s Albertine Rift Program. “It’s the only way to ensure that parks like Virunga survive through periods of conflict.”

The most recent incursion into Virunga National Park was precipitated by the rebel forces of Laurent Nkunda, which have been locked in a battle with the Congolese Army and the forces of the United Nations. The rebels looted and destroyed many of the headquarter buildings in the park and forced the park rangers to flee into the forest. The families of the rangers were also uprooted, with many of them living in makeshift camps in the city of Goma, which lies to the immediate south of the park.

In spite of the improved situation, park rangers must now replace looted equipment and continue their monitoring in the northern and eastern sectors of the park. For the past decade, regional instability has become a fact of life. Last year, nine gorillas were killed for no apparent reason. The human cost of protecting Virunga has been higher; 120 park rangers have been killed by armed groups since 1996.

Maintaining a continual presence in a protected area during periods of conflict is crucial to the long-term survival of such wild places. Instead of abandoning the park altogether when confronted by rebels in greater numbers and with more firepower, the park rangers maintain a passive but effective resistance to the intruders, as they have done many times before. By monitoring the activities of the invaders and recording data on poaching and other resource extraction, they gather the ammunition needed to bring international attention and pressure to bear.

At the moment, the parks authority (ICCN) in Congo is unable to pay salaries for the 600 guards in the park. The guards have to operate without financial support for themselves and their families, and the cost food and other basic commodities have become inflated due to scarcity as a result of the war. ICCN has negotiated the ability to continue to work in rebel controlled areas but they need financial support to be able to do this.

“Now is a critical time for Virunga Park,” added Plumptre. “Individuals can make a big difference in helping to save mountain gorillas, elephants, lions and hippos by supporting the guards who protect them.”

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Virunga National Park is Africa’s first national park, created in 1925 specifically to protect mountain gorillas, and is part of the Virunga Volcano Mountains, which straddle Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mountain gorillas were first studied in the wild here by Drs. George Schaller (in the late 1950s) and Dian Fossey (in the 1970s and 80s). Gorilla tourism—one of the most successful examples of conservation that directly benefits local communities—was started in the Virungas as well. Some $14 million annually are generated in Rwanda and Uganda from tourists seeking to spend an hour with the world famous mountain gorillas.

As the crisis in Virunga National Park escalated in 2007, several governmental and multilateral agencies were quick to respond by providing immediate emergency response, including addressing destruction of gorilla habitat caused by charcoal production, building capacity of park authorities and rangers, and mapping of potential reserve boundaries, and coordination with Congolese government authorities. Among those that acted swiftly were the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development through the Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Great Apes Conservation Fund. This support built a strong foundation for international aid to flow to the region but it is not enough. Now, our continued support is desperately needed to sustain crisis mitigation efforts.

The U.S. government along with several international partners formed the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) in 2002 to support seven Central African nations and has channeled more than $400 million to preserve the rich natural resources and biodiversity of the region.

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. Visit:

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