Rangers and scientists have entered a Congolese national park for the first time in 15 months in search of endangered mountain gorillas
The Virunga national park, which straddles the Mikeno volcano, has become a war zone with bloody clashes between Congolese army troops and rebel soldiers
Virunga, one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla, has been under the control of Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP rebels since September 2007 when most of the rangers who look after the animals were forced to flee
More than 1,100 rangers once patrolled the national parks of Eastern Congo but the area has been wracked by civil war for more than 10 years
They are home to a variety of animals including chimpanzees, forest elephants and rhinos and about 200 of the last remaining 700 mountain gorillas in the world
The last estimate in August 2007 indicated there were 72 gorillas resident in the Virunga Volcanoes Conservation Area, which is shared by Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, but this figure is expected to have changed due to births and deaths and movement to other areas. Another 320 mountain gorillas are in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Some rangers put their own safety at risk and stayed on in the area as the fighting erupted trying to ensure that the gorillas were safe
The gorilla sector of Virunga was attacked repeatedly in 2007 when 10 mountain gorillas were killed. Two male silverbacks were killed in January 2007, an adult female was killed in June 2007 and the following month five more animals were massacred. Pictures of the dead animals caused an international outcry. A dead infant female was found dead in the hands of suspected traffickers
But after breakthrough talks, clearance was given by both the Congolese government and the CNDP authorities for a team of rangers and scientists from the Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) to enter the park to check on the gorillas
They quickly came across the Humba family group of eight gorillas which included a silverback, a pregnant female and a female with an infant, but a full survey of all the gorillas is likely to take a month
Virunga Park Director Emmanuel de Merode said:"We are extremely pleased that all sides in this conflict accept the importance of protecting Virunga’s Gorilla Sector as one of the world’s most important wildlife areas. The survey will give us an accurate assessment of Congo’s mountain gorillas and how they have been affected by the war. The work is huge boost to the morale of our rangers whose families are still living in internally displaced camps in Goma"
Benjamin Nsana, a 40-years-old park guide in the rebel zone who has worked with the gorillas for 15 years, said: "It’s a myth that nobody knew what was happening to them. We were here all along. We’ve been sending rangers out every single day"
Nsana claimed no gorillas had perished over the past year either from poaching, disease or being caught in crossfire and six baby gorillas had been born
Mountain gorillas in the Virunga national park, Congo - Telegraph