Congolese Ranger Killed While Protecting Gorillas

LONDON, UK, May 24, 2007 (ENS) - One wildlife ranger was killed and four were left wounded Sunday by rebel soldiers who shot up patrol posts at Mount Tshiaberimu, a remote part of Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. The rangers were protecting a tiny population of endangered gorillas.

In the early morning hours, the attackers hit two patrol posts of the DRC Parks Authority, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature. The patrol posts at Mount Tshiaberimu protect a population of just 21 gorillas that may be a smaller sub-species of the Eastern lowland gorilla.

The Gorilla Organization, based in London, which supports community conservation in this area, says these animals are "currently classified as Eastern lowland gorillas, Gorilla beringei graueri, but some believe that they are a unique sub-species and exist nowhere else in the world."

The attackers are alleged to be involved in the slaughter of thousands of hippos for illegal bushmeat, says the Gorilla Organization. The gunmen have threatened to kill gorillas if the rangers retaliate for the shootings.

One of the 21 gorillas in the remote and isolated Mount Tshiaberimu area of Virunga National Park. (Photo courtesy Gorilla Organization)
Hostages who were taken by the rebel soldiers were later released unharmed and the four wounded men are reported to be out of danger.

But another death was indirectly caused by the shooting when the wife of one of the Gorilla Organization’s rangers, died during premature labor brought on by the stress in the incident.

The Gorilla Organization helped saved this population from extinction when it initiated a conservation program in the surrounding communities 10 years ago. The conservationists have seen the gorilla population grow from just 16 individuals to 21 in that time.

Greg Cummings, executive director of the Gorilla Organization expressed his condolences at the loss of life and concern over the escalation of violence.

"We support the idea of a mediation forum to focus on conflict resolution," Cummings said. "If we are to continue to save this very special gorilla population from extinction we need to act now."

Ian Redmond, chief consultant for the UN's Great Apes Survival Project, GRASP, and a Gorilla Organization trustee, said, "The brave rangers and their families who make sacrifices daily to protect the world’s endangered gorillas, deserve a better deal."

Director of Conservation for Virunga National Park Norbert Mushenzi says he has seen more than 100 rangers killed in the line of duty during a decade of civil wars and humanitarian crises in DRC.

The Gorilla Organization has launched an emergency appeal for £50,000 (US$99,000) to give immediate aid to those affected by this incident.

Formerly known as The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe, the Gorilla Organization was inspired to raise funds for the endangered mountain gorillas by the pioneering American zoologist whose life and death were dramatized in the film "Gorillas in the Mist."

Today the organization works to ensure the survival of lowland gorillas as well as mountain gorillas. Their projects include gorilla protection, agricultural development; the Durban Process long-term solution to illegal mining, conservation and education, forest people and combating loss of habitat.

At Mt. Tschiaberimu, the Gorilla Organization manages a monitoring, habituation, and park infrastructure project to protect the isolated gorillas.

The project includes community development and sociological as well as ecological research and has succeeded in changing local attitudes despite the ongoing Congolese war, the organization says.

All species of gorillas are listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Two species and five sub-species of gorilla have been identified, but remnant populations of gorillas, such as those at Mount Tshiaberimu, have not yet been definitively identified.