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Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 13:27 GMT
Gorilla diary: August - October 2007
Rangers standing next to the four dead gorillas (Image: Altor IGCP Goma)

Earlier this year, armed men entered the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park and killed five critically endangered mountain gorillas at point-blank range, leaving the bodies where they fell.

To date, 10 gorillas have been killed by gunmen or poachers, and two of the great apes are still missing.

Rangers Diddy and Innocent monitor and protect the remaining gorillas in the war-torn region. In this weekly diary, they describe life on conservation's frontline.

FRIDAY 25 OCTOBER - THREATS AND FEARS

Fighting kicked off again this week. As we predicted it looks like things may get worse before they get better.

Innocent's five children
Innocent has moved his five children to Goma for safety

We have both left Rumangabo park station. Diddy is up north near Rutshuru with his family, and Innocent has left the area with his wife and five children for Goma.

We hear the army and the rebels are going to keep fighting.

The Gorilla Sector is overrun. What are the threats?

Usually, in times of relative peace, mountain gorillas face threats from armed militia groups taking refuge in the park, poachers, charcoal burners and land invaders.

Blackback Mukunda
Blackback Mukunda, protecting his family, we hope

Today, the threats are different. We fear gorillas can get caught in the crossfire. During the chaos and confusion of human conflict, who knows what can happen.

Fighters mistake gorillas for the enemy. This has happened before to the Mapuwa family; five years ago, two gorillas were shot and killed.

We cannot patrol the park. So we cannot remove snares.

Poachers lay snares, usually dozens at a time, mainly for antelope. But baby gorillas get caught in them too; Karema, who was killed in January, lost a hand because of this.

The inhabitants of eastern DR Congo do not eat mountain gorillas (they do eat lowland gorillas).

Kanepo, Dunia and Sebagabo of the Mapuwa family
Kanepo, Dunia and Sebagabo of the Mapuwa family - fate unknown

But some fighters, who are mostly unpaid and unfed, are not from here. Who knows? They may think our mountain gorillas make a good meal.

And of course, we still have no idea where Mufabure came from; the dead female infant that we found with suspected traffickers at the end of last month.

Did she come from a habituated or non-habituated group of mountain gorillas? At the last count in August we had 72 habituated, and an estimated 100 non-habituated.

Because of all these threats, the numbers may have changed dramatically.

FRIDAY 19 OCTOBER - CALM BEFORE THE STORM?

Fighting has calmed somewhat. The President of DR Congo, Joseph Kabila, came to the East to try to sort out the mess with the rebels and put an end to the conflict.

Buhanga, a solitary silverback (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Buhanga, a solitary silverback, needs to fight for a family

The idea is to integrate the rebels into the army - a process known as "brassage".

This involves mixing rebels into the regular military, and deploying them to different areas in the country. This is what other rebels have done.

If the rebels agree to do this, it could signal an end to the conflict, and we could get back into the Gorilla Sector.

But talks are still going on, and we remain powerless and feel jobless. If the rebels don't agree, it could all get worse before it gets better.

Mapuwa, a silverback
Win some, lose some: Mapuwa after losing an interaction

We hope the silverbacks are protecting their families.

The silverback, the dominant male, is always in charge of a mountain gorilla family. He gives the order to wake, rest, eat or sleep.

To do this he has about 16 sounds. Because the vegetation is so dense, the gorillas can often not see each other, so sounds are essential.

Some of these may warn of attack; indicate a stranger is present; show there is good food or let a female know he is interested in copulation. We can recognise these sounds.

But his main role is to warn of danger and protect his family.

When he gives the signal, his entire family will move swiftly through the forest.

Semakuba, an infant gorilla
Silverbacks are responsible for protecting infants, like Semakuba

Other silverbacks may attack him. When they fight it is called an interaction, and these can be vicious, even fatal.

Silverbacks can be solitary, and they need to interact with other males to get a family, otherwise they will be solitary forever. In addition, the sub-species could become inbred.

So combat, as with men, appears to be part of the natural order.

FRIDAY 12 OCTOBER - GUNSHOTS IN THE MIST

Fighting has intensified this week, resulting in the rebels re-seizing the entire Gorilla Sector after beating back the army.

Karateka, a solitary silverback (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Rangers are hoping this gorilla has not been caught in gun crossfire
We are undecided whether we should evacuate our families from Rumangabo Park headquarters.

There is an army base just four kilometres east of our station, and that is one of the rebels' targets.

If they take that, they can cut off the road to Goma, which is our main communication artery.

Today, the army may have made some headway. We can hear the shots ringing out. What will happen tomorrow? We don't know.

We have 34 rangers and their families at the park station from the Gorilla Sector.

Rangers at the headquarters (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The rangers are having to sit tight at the sector's headquarters
These are the men who were forced to flee six weeks ago. We are still providing rations and essential non-food items.

We have evacuated all valuable material from Rumangabo: GPS equipment, generator, computers, printers, etc. We have stocked it wherever there is room in Goma.

We also lost a ranger this week. Salva Gasusa fell from a moving pick-up and died hours later.

He leaves behind a wife and three children. We buried him on Thursday at Rumangabo.

He was on his way home from patrol where he and the rangers had come across a huge truck, full of charcoal from the park.

Charcoal truck (Image: WildlifeDirect)
One of the team's rangers died after stopping a charcoal truck
Charcoal-burning is one of the major threats in Virunga National Park.

The charcoal market in the southern sector alone is worth an estimated $30m a year.

It is mainly for domestic use. It is what people use to cook and sustain themselves.

Because of this, we really need to find an alternative source of fuel for Goma residents.

One day we will have no trees left and the world will keep getting warmer.

FRIDAY 05 OCTOBER - THE WAITING GAME

They tell us you need to have patience in life. So we are trying to be rational, and wait and listen to see what will happen in the Gorilla Sector, but we feel powerless.

Kabila, an orphaned gorilla (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Rangers hope Kabila, an orphaned gorilla, has a bright future

More fighting between rebels and the army on Sunday dashed any hopes we had of getting back into the park this week.

More than 20 combatants died during exchanges of fire very close to the mountain gorillas.

We know many people around the world are worried for the mountain gorillas of the DR Congo because many supporters leave comments on our blog.

We wish there was more we could do to just get in there and protect these beloved creatures.

We visited the two orphans this week: Ndeze, who lost her mother to murderers in July; and Kabila, who was found clinging to her dead mother who was executed in June.

Mountain gorillas are notoriously hard to keep alive in captivity and re-introductions into the wild have rarely been successful, as hand-raised gorillas "smell" of humans.

None of these animals have ever reproduced outside of their natural habitat. This is why there are no mountain gorillas in zoos.

We hope this time it will be different. Each orphan has two "guardians" who do two-week shifts; you could also call them surrogate mothers.

Rangers receiving ration packs (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Rangers and their families find it hard to keep their spirits up

Each time they return to the facility in the town of Goma, they are checked by a doctor to prevent the transmission of infection.

The babies drink milk, play, sleep and tumble!

We have also distributed rations this week to the 50+ rangers who are still at the main park station after fleeing their patrol posts a month ago when the attacks started on 3 September.

They need support; they and their families are struggling to keep their spirits up.

We, the rangers of ICCN, also need to get our message out: we must protect the mountain gorillas.

FRIDAY 28 SEPTEMBER - A TRAGIC LOSS

Gorillas' graves (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Mufabure's remains were buried alongside this year's other victims

This week we lost another gorilla. Mufabure, which means "killed for no reason" as she was posthumously named, was found when we broke up a gorilla trafficking ring after more than four weeks of covert investigations near the Gorilla Sector of Virunga National Park.

We arrested two suspects who said Mufabure had been snatched from nearby. They wanted $8,000 for this three-year-old female.

We still don't know if they had a buyer, or who is their boss, but we have strong reason to suspect another gorilla is being held captive. We are still investigating.

Mambo, a male sub-adult mountain gorilla (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Mambo from the Mapuwa family, which rangers are able to track

Trafficking is an old threat that is re-surfacing. We can add it now to the list of other dangers facing the park: militias, poachers, charcoal burners and land invaders.

Because we have not been able to monitor our mountain gorillas in nearly four weeks, we don't know where Mufabure came from.

Decomposition was already well underway and we could not identify her, but she could come from one of our habituated groups, or from one of the estimated 120 wild gorillas in our territory; we simply have no way of knowing.

The rebels are still at Jomba and Bikenge, while the army is at Bukima. We saw the damage the army has done to the patrol post for ourselves this week, when we went up there for a brief visit with the UN.

They had vandalized our buildings and furniture, and there are 40 military men living there with their families.

On a positive note, the two gorilla families at Jomba are still being tracked daily by rangers, and are reported to be in good health.

We are sorry this is the only bit of good news but unfortunately these are tough times. We have now lost 10 mountain gorillas this year.

We desperately need to get back into the park.

FRIDAY 21 SEPTEMBER - STALEMATE

At the start of the week a handful of rangers had at last made it back to the Jomba patrol post in the Mikeno Sector.

Gorilla (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Ruzirabwoba, a solitary silverback, has reappeared in the park

The Mapuwa family of 12 individuals was found alive and well, and the Rugendo family of five - all that remains from the 12 individuals before the July massacre - were seen next to the park, also doing fine.

But the big surprise was Ruzirabwoba, meaning "he who shows no fear".

This solitary silverback had not been seen since January, and is thought to have returned from a stay in Uganda. Gorillas, as you can see, do not recognise international borders.

So we have located 17 of the known habituated mountain gorillas. This is a positive start, but there is still a long way to go.

The army will still not let rangers anywhere near Bukima. Those who have tried to approach the park have been harassed.

Rangers (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Although there is no fighting, rangers find it hard to do their jobs

Eye-witnesses say crops next to the patrol post have been dug up and fields destroyed, by these largely unpaid military men.

In Bukima, the rebels have brought in cattle - a sure sign that they are there to stay.

And Jomba has turned into a command post for the rebels (where rations and material are stored) and from where troops are deployed.

We have also received reports that the rebels are bringing tourists into the Park via Bunagana on the Ugandan border to visit the Mapuwa family.

Gorillas (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The rangers fear unofficial tourist groups could endanger the gorillas

These kinds of visits are unacceptable. The tourists are paying up to $500 (250) per person, and there is no control or abidance to the rules.

The groups are too large, and the seven-metre rule between humans and gorillas is not being respected.

So last week we saw a ceasefire between the army and rebels; now we are looking at stalemate.

Rangers are still not fully operating in the sector, and the mountain gorillas remain under threat.

FRIDAY 14 SEPTEMBER - SIDELINED

Fighting in the Gorilla Sector raged at the start of the week, with rangers reporting heavy shelling and gunfire exchange between the army and the rebels.

Volcano. Image: Wildlife Direct
The Mikeno volcano, from where the Gorilla Sector gets its name
Then a ceasefire between the two groups was brokered late on Tuesday by the UN. This is good, but unfortunately not good enough.

We tried to send trackers (again) into the park on Tuesday to the Bukima and Bikenge patrol posts, but they were aggressively turned back by the army who don't want anyone around.

Meanwhile, the patrol post at Jomba is still under rebel control.

So we still can't work in the Gorilla Sector. We still can't track the gorillas, monitor their health or protect them.

How is the Rugendo family surviving after the massacre in July that cut their family size from 12 to 5? They have been spotted in the fields outside the park, and this is worrying.

Map showing location of Virunga National Park (Source: WildlifeDirect)
How is the orphan Mutazimiza in the Kabirizi family doing after showing signs of malnourishment? How is Noel's machete cut on the wrist, which he suffered during the July attacks?

We need answers.

In a bizarre twist, the rebel leader and dissident, General Laurent Nkunda, has let some rangers go back into the park near Jomba to track the Mapuwa family.

His men gave rangers a couple of GPS units and guns. (His men stole a lot more than that when they attacked the patrol posts in the first place nearly two weeks ago.)

Last January, when two solitary silverbacks were killed and eaten, Nkunda and his men were blamed, and it was reported in the international media.

Gorilla family. Image: Wildlife Direct
Members of a gorilla family can be identified by their nose prints
So this time, we think he wants to make sure this does not happen and he does not suffer the same repercussions.

But this is a small gesture. There are 73 habituated mountain gorillas in the sector; the Mapuwa group numbers 12.

We urgently need to get into the rest of the park.

The ceasefire ends in a few days, but then what? It can still go either way, and the Gorillas are caught in the middle.

FRIDAY 07 SEPTEMBER - LOSING CONTROL

Baby mountain gorilla. Image: Wildlife Direct
The death of the infant gorilla was just one sad event in a bleak week

The week started on Sunday afternoon with bad news from Bukima.

The baby born two weeks ago to Bilali, in the Munyaga Family, was killed after interactions between the silverbacks of the group.

This family is highly unstable because there are three silverbacks in the group, and we believe the baby may have been killed as a result of uncertainty over who was the father.

The plan was to visit the family on Monday, but that morning we received news that heavy fighting had broken out between rebels and government forces in the Gorilla Sector.

More bad news arrived later that morning with reports that the Bikenge Patrol Post had been attacked and looted of its communication equipment, weapons and ammunition.

Bukima patrol post (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The Bukima Patrol Post was evacuated as the fighting neared

Troop III of the Advance Force, who were doing patrols of the area, had been disarmed by rebels.

Communication between guards had been made difficult because the communication masts in the area had been sabotaged.

Moments later we heard that the Jomba Patrol Post had also been attacked and looted by rebels.

The patrol post at Bukima was now a likely target, so all rangers and their families were evacuated to the main station at Rumangabo.

With no presence in the park, the Gorilla Sector was now under the control of rebels.

Rangers (Image: Wildlife Direct)
Heavy fighting forced rangers to evacuate the gorilla sector

We were no longer able to protect the mountain gorillas.

With all the gorilla killings that have occurred this year we remain fearful over what will happen to the remaining families, trapped on the frontline.

On Tuesday, the fighting was getting closer to the Rumangabo main station, our last point of refuge. If it got any closer, we would be joining the thousands of people already displaced in the region.

Fighting continued in the Gorilla Sector all through Tuesday and Wednesday. The support we received through our blog was tremendous, and the world's media also started to notice.

Rumangabo main station (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The fighting forced the WildlifeDirect team to consider leaving its HQ

The fighting nearby started to calm on Wednesday, and thankfully by Thursday we were able to send the first rangers back to the Bukima Patrol Post to do a reconnaissance of the area to see if they could find any of the gorilla families.

The fighting had been heavy and the gorilla families may have moved many miles from where they were at the weekend.

Locating the groups at Bukima and checking to see if all individuals are still alive will be difficult. We don't know how many days it will be until we can check on the families caught in the fighting in the rest of the sector.

FRIDAY 31 AUGUST - TENSE TIMES

Silverback gorilla named Lilengo (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Lulengo made a welcome return after being missing since January
An increase in fighting between the military and rebels in the south of Virunga National Park has made our work more difficult this week.

The situation remains tense, but daily life still has to continue.

We have now finished monitoring all of the habituated mountain gorillas, and were very pleased on Tuesday when we found a silverback named Lulengo.

He had gone missing in January with another female, shortly after rebels killed two silverbacks.

A ranger destroys a pile of charcoal (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The national park is a rich source of wood for charcoal traders

But fortunately he reappeared last week after an interaction (in other words, a fight) between himself and another silverback, called Pili-Pili.

Pili-Pili bore the worst of the wounds because following the interaction his family was charmed over to join Lulengo, leaving him to become a lone silverback once more.

The gorilla families in this part of the sector are highly unstable due to the number of lone silverbacks in the area.

As a result, female family members are often changing allegiances from one silverback to another.

Inside the park, rangers have also been cracking down on the destructive charcoal trade.

Many people are unhappy with the crackdown, and we have been receiving many threats from the military who live in the park and have financially benefited from the trade.

Ranger with head wounds (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Rangers have been attacked by those involved in the charcoal trade

Recently, one of our rangers, Kimanuka, was attacked while travelling from our main station at Rumangabo to his patrol post at Kibati.

There were soldiers alongside Kimunaka in the truck in which he was travelling and they attacked him with their bayonets, leaving him with head wounds.

On a more positive note, we have just found out that via our blog, we have received enough donations to build toilets and improve the water system at the Bukima Patrol Post within the gorilla sector.

This will improve the sanitary conditions of the guards living there and it will also mean that they will have a steady and cleaner supply of water.

We often face setbacks in our work and have felt isolated for so many years, but with the support that we are receiving from the outside world, we feel confident that things will change.

The wars here in Congo destroyed the country and its parks, but we must try to rebuild and protect the wildlife of Virunga National Park.

UPDATE:

Last night, a patrol post in Virunga National Park was attacked by rebels. One park ranger was killed and another was seriously wounded with a gunshot in the neck.

Over these last few days, tensions have increased in this area and there are worries that the situation could deteriorate further.

William Deed, WildlifeDirect, DR Congo

FRIDAY 24 AUGUST - THE CIRCLE OF LIFE

It has been a very long week that began with the arrival of a UN team, who were here to investigate the July killings.

Ranger hold the remains of female gorilla (Image: WildlfeDirect)
Innocent holding the remains of the female gorilla Macibiri
On the evening of their arrival, one of the rangers came back from patrol with the remains of one of the missing adult females, Macibiri, from the Rugendo Family.

It confirmed our worst fears and brought the family's death toll to five.

Her missing infant, Ntaribi, is too young to look after itself and we are now sure she is dead, too.

The next morning we trekked in silence to where the killings had taken place.

Three-and-a-half weeks had passed since the attacks, but still the vegetation was flattened and torn from where the bodies had struggled in those last few minutes.

Our job this week has been to identify and monitor the status of all habituated gorilla families within the Gorilla Sector.

Rangers filming (Image: WildlifeDirect)
By filming Mutazimiza, the rangers can show the footage to vets
We spent from Saturday until Monday with the Kabirizi Family, and were concerned about the group's only infant, Mutazimiza.

Her mother went missing after an attack on 8 June, and we have noticed that the skin on the palms of her hands and feet is sore and she is having problems eating and moving around.

Dr Jacques from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) is now assessing her health.

A new arrival

Tuesday brought better news and lifted the hearts of all those who work here.

Baby mountain gorilla. Image: Wildlife Direct
The birth has been described as significant for the species
The female from the Munyaga Family, Bilali, had given birth to a boy.

After everything that has happened, this is an incredibly important event for us, and we were pleased to see that international newspapers had picked up the story.

We're new to blogging on WildlifeDirect, and are encouraged by the comments and financial support we receive from those concerned with helping the remaining gorilla families.

We are now also aware of the wider implications that our blog posts may have.

Map (Image: BBC)

Just a few hours after posting on the remains of the missing gorilla, the BBC reported the story, which then made its way around the world.

Eastern Congo is still a volatile area and we have to be careful about what we say on our blog.

Rebels and poachers already make our work very dangerous, and so we need to be sensitive towards the political situation as it could put the lives of those who work here in even greater danger.


Profile of the rangers:

Innocent
Innocent Mburanumwe (Image: WildlifeDirect)

Head of gorilla monitoring in the Mikeno sector. He has worked in Virunga National Park for nine years. His father is a patrol post chief. His brother was also a high-level ranger, but was killed in the line of service in November 1996.

Diddy
Diddy Mwanaki (Image: WildlifeDirect)

Head of tourism in the southern sector of Virunga National Park. He has been a ranger for 16 years and started working with the gorillas in the Mikeno sector in 1991. He was forced to flee from his work from 1997-2001 during the nation's civil war.



SEE ALSO
Diary: Protecting mountain gorillas
29 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature
New arrival for DR Congo gorillas
22 Aug 07 |  Science/Nature
Missing DR Congo gorillas 'dead'
17 Aug 07 |  Science/Nature
Concern over gorilla 'executions'
26 Jul 07 |  Science/Nature
Apes 'extinct in a generation'
01 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature

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