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Last Updated: Friday, 17 September, 2004, 20:47 GMT 21:47 UK
The battle for DR Congo's wildlife
By Arnaud Zajtman
BBC, Virunga Park

Despite the Democratic Republic of Congo's shaky peace, her five World Heritage site national parks and their wildlife and unique ecosystems remain endangered.

Rangers on duty in Virunga National Park
More than 100 rangers have been killed since 1996
Donors at a Unesco conference in Paris have just pledged $40m to protect DR Congo's natural heritage, but for conservationists on the ground the parks remain a battle ground.

In Virunga Park, rangers who try to protect the wildlife have become victims of attacks by hundreds of roaming armed men who operate in the park's vast territory.

"They poach the animals, they attack the villagers who live in the park and they even target the rangers" says Deogratias Mbula, Virunga Park's director.

Since 1996, out of 700 park rangers, 105 have been killed, Mr Mbula says.


Created in 1930, Virunga Park stretches 8,000 sq km along DR Congo's border with Rwanda and Uganda.

Elephant in Virunga National Park
Armed soldiers have decimated all the species which had an economic value
Conservationist Paulin Tshikaya
At the time it was Africa's only game park, where hunters were forbidden and tourists welcomed.

But since 1994, tourists have been replaced by refugees and militia.

One million Rwandans, who have since left, sought refuge in the park, along with hundreds of Congolese traditional warriors known as Mai-Mai and Rwandan Hutu militiamen blamed for the genocide in Rwanda.

Rangers in the park say the armed men now act under the authority of a Congolese warrior nicknamed Jackson.

Lost wildlife

Congolese conservationists say that out of more than 70,000 elephants before the war, only an estimated 14,000 remain.

Tusks in Virunga National Park
Elephants are poached for their tusks
"Armed soldiers have decimated all the species which had an economic value," says conservationist Paulin Tshikaya.

As a result, most herds of elephants have either been killed or have fled to neighbouring countries.

Only old lonely elephants have remained behind and they represent an easy target for poachers.

Mr Mbula blames militiamen and Congolese army soldiers for poaching in the park.

Hippos have also become rare. DR Congo wildlife specialist Jean-Pierre d'Huart says the hippo population in DR Congo has dropped from 20,000 before the war to an estimated 1,300.

Under attack

Since 2000, the UN foundation has provided $3m to fund programmes to protect DR Congo's wildlife.

Gorilla in Virunga National Park
Mountain gorillas are Virunga's one success story
As a result, 1,200 armed guards have been employed to curb poaching in the five parks. But they have become targets as well.

The most recent attack in Virunga Park took place on 7 September in Kabaraza, a village in the centre of the park, some 83km from Goma.

One guard was killed, the other badly wounded.

Ranger Seruhungo Mele said that about 400 well-armed attackers stormed the village in the early hours.

"They looted our HF radio and they took our weapons as well as all goods in our houses. They then disappeared, but they could come back any time," he said.

'Real war'

The five endangered parks are located either near DR Congo's porous borders or near the former front-lines, which split the country during years of war and massive destruction.

Wildlife in Virunga National Park
Its is hoped the $40m will conserve DR Congo's World Heritage sites
Garamba Park, which is located near the border with Sudan, is similarly affected by rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), who poach elephants with grenades and rocket-propeller guns.

"They have killed most of the elephants. It is a real war," said Kes Kilman-Smith, a former Unesco co-ordinator who spent 20 years in Garamba.

Congo's Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) employs only 150 guards to protect this 5,000 sq-km park.

Money spinner

So far the mountain gorillas are the only endemic species to have survived the war, thanks to trans-border cooperation between rangers from Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo.

Annette Lanjouw, a primatologist with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, says that if peace prevailed in the region, the world's last 720 mountain gorillas could generate some $20m annually in tourist revenue for the three countries.

It is hoped the money pledged on Friday by donors including Unesco, the UN Foundation, USA, Belgium and Italy will help Congolese conversation.

But despite these financial efforts it is widely believed that only a better commitment from local authorities and a final settlement of DR Congo's war, which according to humanitarian agencies has already claimed an estimated three million human lives, will fully protect this world heritage.

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