Gorillas in the Crossfire

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Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty

A silverback gorilla in the Virunga National Park outside Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

War has flared up again in the chaotic Democratic Republic of the Congo and the endangered mountain gorillas are in the crossfire. Only 700 mountain gorillas, the males known for their moonlit silver-haired backs, exist. More than half live in Virunga National Park, a conservation area in eastern Congo that stretches into bordering Uganda and Rwanda. But last weekend rebels loyal to the dissident Congolese general Laurent Nkunda, took over the last protected section of the gorilla habitat in the park, raising questions over the fate of this last known population of the great apes. "The rangers were forced to flee and have not been able to monitor the gorillas," says Samantha Newport, spokeswoman for the Congo and Kenya-based conservation group Wildlife Direct. "This is a horrendous scenario."

The southern section of Virunga where the gorillas reside is strategically important to the rebels; the area was also attacked in January, when rebels allegedly killed then ate two of the silverbacks — a shocking act since conservationists say that mountain gorillas are usually not eaten. A total of 10 gorillas are known to have been killed this year, including a female gorilla killed execution-style. Two gorillas are still missing.

The park's emergency plan to continue tracking and monitoring the gorillas even with the rebel presence has fallen through. With thousands of rebels throughout the forest, the security situation has worsened into a "no-go zone," says Lucy Fauveau of the London Zoological Society. The Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature is currently attempting to collaborate with MONUC, the U.N.'s peacekeeping mission in the Congo, to provide protection to the gorillas. The U.N. employs around 17,000 peacekeepers in the Congo — the largest force of its kind worldwide. In the meantime, conservationists say they will wait to see if there will be another cease-fire — a possible window of opportunity for the rangers to go in and check on the animals' status.

Gunshots were heard this week from the key patrol post Bukima, where government troops are trying to push the rebels out of the park. Says Newport: "The gorillas are confused and could get caught in the crossfire. They are not a target, but happen to live in a part of the world with a lot of human conflict." The larger problem, of course, is one of stability. The gorillas have weathered conflict before, with nearly 150 shot dead by either gunmen or poachers in the last ten years alone.

A number of analysts believe Nkunda's rebellion has a fast-approaching expiration date because he has no support from the West and from neighboring countries. And without that, the rebels will soon lose their advantage. That may be of limited consolation to gorilla conservationists, however. For example, a siege aimed at starving out the rebels may compel them to target wildlife and the gorillas — as food. "In any normal situation, it's hard to protect the gorillas," Newport says, citing threats from armed militias, poachers and people chopping trees down for charcoal and space to grow crops. "They're kind of all out to get you."