International Mission to Investigate Gorilla Killings

PARIS, France, August 10, 2007 (ENS) – A group of experts from UNESCO and the World Conservation Union, IUCN, has been invited into the Democratic Republic of the Congo to investigate the slaughter of four mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park last month. They leave Paris Saturday on a 10 day mission to the central African country.

The execution-style shootings are considered a setback for gorilla preservation and for conservation of the World Heritage site, which was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1994.

Two suspects have been identified as being involved in the killings. One has been arrested and is assisting the authorities, but the other is still at large. Both were seen early on July 23 at the scene where the gorillas were shot, according to the International Gorilla Conservation Program, IGCP.

The bodies of four mountain gorillas killed July 22 in Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site. (Photo courtesy IGCP)
Working with local authorities and partners in the field, the members of the UNESCO-IUCN mission will investigate the reasons for the targeting of these rare animals whose population in the park is estimated at 380 out of a total of 700 mountain gorillas worldwide.

Seven mountain gorillas have been killed in separate incidents this year alone.

On the basis of its findings, and in consultation with the Congolese authorities, the mission will propose measures for the protection of the mountain gorillas and for the improvement of the conservation of the World Heritage Site.

Situated in the northeast region of the DRC, near the borders of Uganda and Rwanda, Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa, established in 1925.

This mission is organized within the framework of the reinforced monitoring mechanism adopted by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee during its annual session in Christchurch, New Zealand just over a month ago.

Invited into the country by the DRC authorities and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, the members of the mission will meet government representatives in Kinshasa.

They will collect data including testimonies from guards and administrators of Virunga National Park as well as representatives of local communities and of the United Nations mission to the DRC.

The experts will meet political and military leaders of the province and examine the state of conservation of Virunga National Park, the threats on the site and its actual management.

They will also examine the economic impact of the situation on the local economy, especially with relation to tourism.

The four gorillas were killed in Bukima, probably on the night of July 22. Two other members of the group, a female and her young, are reported to have gone missing. They all belonged to a group inhabiting an area regularly visited by tourists and were habituated to the presence of human beings.
The dominant male of the family group, Senkwekwe, was killed in the attack July 22. (Photo courtesy WildlifeDirect)
Killed were Senkwekwe, the dominant silverback of the group, and three adult females, while another adult female is missing and presumed dead.

The loss of five of the group's 12 members means it is likely to disintegrate as a social group, says Conservation International, whose president Russell Mittermeier is a primate specialist.

"This is the worst single incident in 30 years, in a region that is normally seen as the only success story for gorillas across the continent," said Mittermeier, who chairs the Primate Specialist Group of the IUCN's Species Survival Commission. "If we can't stop these attacks, our closest living relatives will disappear from the planet."

Conservation International says an infant mountain gorilla, carried by his brother from the scene of the slaughter, has been rescued and is being cared for at a primate rehabilitation center in the DRC city of Goma.

Members of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Program and Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature had to tranquilize the brother to rescue the infant, who otherwise was certain to die from lack of care in the diminished group.

The infant was taken to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, DFGFI, rehabilitation center in Goma, joining another infant orphaned six weeks earlier in an attack on a different group in the park that killed another adult female.

The rescued infant gorilla is being cared for at a primate rehab center. (Photo by Heidrun Simm, courtesy Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International)
Fossey, an American zoologist, lived in the Virunga Mountains and studied gorillas on the Rwanda side of the border until she was murdered there in 1985.

Mittermeier said Conservation International has agreed to provide Primate Action Fund money in collaboration with DFGFI for additional guards to protect the mountain gorillas.

Members of the International Gorilla Conservation Program - a coalition of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna and Flora International and WWF - are engaged in emergency talks with wildlife authorities and conservation groups in Goma to coordinate and support conservation efforts.

Plans are to intensify ranger patrols within the park, to solicit support of the DRC national army to provide security to the rangers, and to seek political support from the provincial governor to safeguard all the habituated gorilla groups in the area of the killings.

The disappearance of these gorillas represents not only a tragedy for the preservation of the species, but also the loss of an important source of revenue for local communities, said UNESCO.

Since the beginning of the year, seven gorillas have been shot and killed. This is more than the numbers lost during the conflict that wracked the Great Lakes region in the 1990s, leading the World Heritage Committee to inscribe the park of the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Some of the rangers who do the dangerous job of patrolling Virunga National Park (Photo courtesy WildlifeDirect)
UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura has called on the DRC national authorities to adopt urgent measures to bring the killings to an end.

"There is grave concern for the mountain gorillas as the latest killings are inexplicable," said UNESCO. "They do not correspond to traditional poaching where animals are killed for commercial purposes. Furthermore the killings have taken place despite the increased guard patrols and the presence of military forces in the area."

After their mission is complete, the UNESCO and IUCN experts will brief the authorities in Kinshasa as well as partners in the field of their findings and compile a report on the situation.

In view of the fact that the five World Heritage sites of the DRC have had to be placed on the World Heritage in Danger List, and of the recent deterioration in Virunga, UNESCO is planning a high-level meeting in the autumn to examine ways to improve the situation.

The meeting will bring together the DRC authorities, UNESCO natural heritage specialists, representatives of the African Union, sub-regional organizations and IUCN President Mohammed Valli Moosa, who is a former South African environment minister.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.