Page last updated at 09:52 GMT, Tuesday, 22 July 2008 10:52 UK

Gorilla diary: February - July 2008

Rangers standing next to the four dead gorillas (Image: Altor IGCP Goma)
In July 2007, 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.

Since September, rebel forces have controlled the area, threatening to kill any conservationists or gorilla rangers who attempted to enter the area.

Diddy and Innocent are long-serving rangers who have spent their working lives protecting the remaining gorillas in the war-torn region.

In this weekly diary, they describe life on conservation's frontline and the frustration of how recent events are hampering their efforts.

FRIDAY 18 JULY - FATAL AMBUSH

Wounded ranger (Image: WildlifeDirect)
A ranger looks at the bullet that nearly claimed his life
As you may have seen in the news, a group of rangers from Virunga National Park and their wives were attacked last week as they travelled on a WWF truck between the Ranger Post at Lulimbi and the town of Ishasha, on the Uganda/Congo border.

The group left the patrol post at about four o'clock in the afternoon. There had not been any problems on the road that day, so there was no reason to expect an attack.

At about five in the evening, the truck approached a motorcyclist who had been stopped by a group of about 15 men.

Scene of the ambush (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Two people were killed when the truck was ambushed

As the truck driver stopped the vehicle, the group suddenly turned their attention to the truck and starting shooting without warning.

A second group of men came from the right side of the road and fired shots as well.

The rangers were caught completely by surprise and were heavily outnumbered, but were able to return fire before escaping.

An 18-year-old woman was killed on the spot, and the wife of a ranger managed to run away into the bush before dying as a result of her injuries.

One of the WWF staff was hit by a bullet in the foot, another ranger's wife was wounded by three bullets, and a ranger was hit in the arm.

Ambushed truck (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Two of the bullets penetrated the side of the truck

Others hid in the bush or under the truck itself, as the bandits stole everything on board, including phones, money, and GPS equipment. They even took the mattresses that the WWF staff had brought to sleep on in Lulimbi.

As the bandits escaped, the man on the motorcycle was able to drive to the nearest military base to inform the army, who came immediately to rescue the survivors and take the injured to the hospital.

Local officials have been quoted by the press saying that the bandits were Mai-Mai, but we are not sure if it was them or the FDLR rebels, who also terrorise this area.

MONDAY 7 JULY - FOREST CONFRONTATION

Last Friday a team of rangers left the Kibumba post to patrol for charcoal makers in the Kanyamahoro area of the Bukima Sector.

Klbumba (Wildlife Direct)
The rangers had left their post in Kibumba for a patrol
They soon came across two women in the forest who were carrying bags of charcoal. The women dropped the bags and escaped into the forest. The rangers took the charcoal and continued on their patrol.

What they didn't know was that the women had run to a village to tell the local FDLR rebels (a Hutu militia, some of whom were involved in the Rwanda genocide) that the rangers were there.

Soon the FDLR rebels found the rangers and a confrontation ensued - three rangers were captured, four were able to escape, and one ranger went missing.

The ranger patrol (Wildlife Direct)
The rangers confiscated bags of charcoal
It was at this point that we got a call from one of the captured rangers, informing us of the situation. The rebels were unhappy that the charcoal had been confiscated and wanted it back in exchange for the rangers.

We spoke to the rebel chief on the phone and told him that we could not give the illegal charcoal back. After much negotiation, the rangers were finally released that evening and they went to the nearest UN base for safety.

There was still one ranger missing: Albert Sebagabo. The rebels assured us that they didn't know where he was. We waited and waited into the night, but still no sign of Albert.

The next morning at 9am, Albert finally arrived at the Kibati patrol post. He had spent the night on his own in the forest after having escaped the rebels. He was a bit shaken and tired, but okay.

FRIDAY 27 JUNE - A PLEA TO TOURISTS

We have received news from our sources that tourists are once again crossing the border into the Congo to visit the gorillas in the Mikeno sector.

Laurent Nkunda's rebels are charging tourists to take them to see the Mapuwa and Lulengo groups of habituated gorillas.

Gorilla family (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Visits organised by the rebels are putting the gorillas at risk

We are worried that the rebel "rangers" are not following the proper guidelines, such as observing a minimum distance of seven metres in order to prevent disease transmission.

We also hear that last Friday a group of 20 tourists came into the park; the week before it was 22. Again, that is above the maximum limits allowed in legal tourism.

We assume that the people choosing to visit the gorillas this way either could not reserve a place on the gorilla visits in Rwanda, or decided they would prefer to pay less.

We are urging tourists to think twice before visiting the Congo gorillas at the moment, as their dollars will be going straight into the pocket of the rebels.

Remember, these are the very same rebels who killed and ate two silverbacks last year.

Gatovu patrol post (image: WildlifeDirect)
Rangers had to abandon the patrol post just weeks after moving back

On Sunday, we had to evacuate from the Gatovu Patrol Post, just weeks after moving back into the area.

There have been significant movements by Nkunda's rebels over the past week in the area, and last weekend they arrived at Rwankuba Hill, which is right next to the patrol post and opposite a Congolese army position.

The rangers were concerned that an attack was about to take place with them caught in the middle, so we decided to evacuate the area.

We are now trying to find out more information from the FARDC army about what is going on, and when it might be safe to return.

Until then, our anti-poaching patrols, unfortunately, will be suspended.

FRIDAY 13 JUNE - BACK TO BUSINESS

The Makala campaign is the sustained effort to prevent the destruction of the gorilla's habitat for charcoal.

Sacks of seized charcoal (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The illegal charcoal trade continues to be the main threat to the gorillas

This illegal trade is considered to be the most important threat to the future of the mountain gorillas in Virunga.

Our charcoal roadblock on the route between the park and Goma has been difficult to manage because trucks have been trying to force their way through at night and at high speed.

The charcoal that we do confiscate is sent to our station at Rumangabo for storage, before being redistributed to people who have been displaced by the conflict.

On Monday, representatives from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came with two trucks and picked up 240 sacks of charcoal.

Ranger with collection of snares removed from the park (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Snares used by troops were found close to the gorilla's habitat

Considering each sack is worth $30 (15) in Goma, that's $7,200 (3,600) worth of charcoal that we are donating to the refugees.

The patrols from the newly reopened Gatovu post have proved fruitful.

The front between the Congolese Army and the rebels is nearby, so the forest has suffered from illegal activities by hungry soldiers.

Ranger Augustin Kambale and his team have already destroyed more than 10 charcoal ovens and 51 snares.

The presence of so many snares is very worrying, since the area is within the home range of the Kabirizi group of mountain gorillas.

Rangers carrying the coffin of Alexandre Wathaut (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Rangers paid their final respects to Mr Wathaut, who died on Tuesday

On a sad note, the director of Virunga National Park, Alexandre Wathaut, died of natural causes on Tuesday.

He was a well-respected man whose leadership was critical during the gorilla crisis last year.

His funeral on Thursday was attended by hundreds of mourners and he was buried at the Rumangabo station.

He will be missed.

FRIDAY 6 JUNE - GLIMMERS OF HOPE

As you may know, most of the Mikeno sector (where the gorillas are) of the Virunga National Park has been out of bounds for us for the last nine months.

The ranger team at Gatovu (Image: Wildlife Direct)
A proud moment for the team of gorilla rangers

Before Laurent Nkunda's rebels took over, we had five patrol posts in Mikeno: Jomba, Bikenge, Bukima, Gatovu and Kibumba.

Kibumba has been the only one we have had access to, until now.

We sent a team from our anti-poaching unit to the Gatovu patrol post with the help of the Congolese Army (FARDC).

We had heard that the rebels were no longer controlling Gatovu, so we wanted to check it out.

We were pleased to discover that the patrol post building had not been destroyed by the rebels, although we did find that a large area of trees around it had been cut down for charcoal.

Rangers on patrol (Image: Wildlife Direct)
The team have widened their patrol network in recent weeks

We now have a team of rangers permanently based at Gatovu.

In the last week, they have been going on patrols.

Already, they have found 21 snares and have arrested a poacher.

They also discovered that the soldiers in the area were themselves cutting down trees for charcoal, but thankfully our renewed presence is putting an end to that.

This is a fantastic development. Establishing our presence at Gatovu is an important first step towards reopening the gorilla sector.

Every day we can see the Mikeno volcano in the distance and it is incredibly frustrating not knowing how the gorillas there are doing.

There are plans for the UN troops based here (MONUC) to go on joint patrols with us there sometime in the future.

We really hope that, slowly but surely, we are making our way back to seeing our beloved gorillas once again.

MONDAY 3 MARCH - BACK TO SQUARE ONE

It has been a week of great frustration. We thought that we were going to be able to get back into the Gorilla Sector, but have been experiencing major setbacks.

Joint UN/rangers patrol (Image: WildlifeDirect)
UN peacekeepers have joined the rangers on patrols of the area

The rebels have said that they will execute any rangers who go to Bukima or to Jomba.

We don't have enough support to face up to the rebels, who number in their thousands; we are only a little more than 100.

Having said that, the informal reports we have been receiving suggest there have not been any gorilla killings.

In fact, we have been told that two baby mountain gorillas were born during the war, which is really encouraging for us.

The other important thing is that we are finally making real headway in our efforts to stop the charcoal trade.

Patrol searching for illegal charcoal (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Strengthened roadblocks have increase charcoal seizures

A section of the Advance Force (the elite rangers who are based in the north of the park) have come to join us.

In many ways, we have never been stronger.

We have now seized more than 100 tonnes of charcoal, which is being redistributed to people in the Internally Displaced Camps.

There have been three major events recently. A couple of weeks ago we started carrying out joint patrols with Monuc, the UN peace keeping forces, and managed to recover much of the Nyamulagira sector.

This area is adjacent to the Gorilla Sector and has been worse-hit by illegal charcoal burning.

We have also stepped up the number of road blocks, and are doing it jointly with a small team of military police, who help us to handle the military lorries that are now transporting the charcoal.

UN peacekeepers on patrol (Image: Wildlife Direct)
The presence of UN peacekeepers is paying dividends

These vehicles made a habit of smashing our road blocks at night, which was beginning to get very dangerous.

They are more careful now that the road blocks are manned by their own military police. We managed to seize two army lorries and handed them over to the military tribunal in Goma.

We reckon that the flow of charcoal is now less than a third of what it had a couple of months ago.

The problem is that we are making many enemies, especially among the military.

Some of them have been making a lot of money from the charcoal and they are not happy with our efforts to stop the illegal trade.

FRIDAY 15 FEBRUARY - GOOD NEWS FROM THE MOUNTAINS

There has been mounting hope and excitement. We are building up to return to Bukima after more than five months of absence as a result of the war.

Mikeno volcano (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Good news from the mountains has made it way back to base

We were due to return on Thursday, but we had to operate jointly with Monuc, the UN peace-keeping forces in Congo, who have been giving us a helping hand through these difficult times.

Their presence on our patrols gives us added security, because militias would not hesitate to shoot us, but would think twice about firing at Monuc soldiers, who have aerial and ground support.

What we would like to share with you is the exciting news we have received from the advance party, who preceded us in the mountains.

Advance party of gorilla rangers and Monuc officials (Image: WildlifeDirect)
An advance party entered the sector ahead of the main group

We are not entirely certain about the information's reliability, but what we have heard brings us enormous hope and much happiness.

We have heard that there are two newborn babies in the Mapuwa and Kabirizi families.

It sounds too good to be true, but we remain cautious as the news is not certain, and we have been disappointed so many times in the past.

At this stage, we cannot provide more information about mothers and those babies.

Innocent helping to load supplies into a truck (Image: WildifeDirect)
Five months away means supplies will have to be replenished

We need to carry out an assessment to certify which females had the babies, and also to find out the actual status of the families.

We can certify that three big families have been found: Humba, Kabirizi and Mapuwa, but we cannot know if their composition remains the same.

We are still looking for thee other small families: Rugendo, Muniaga (each with five members) and Lulengo (four individuals).

Soon, God willing, we will be able to return to Bukima. We have waited over five months for this.

MONDAY 11 FEBRUARY - A GLIMMER OF HOPE?

The war on illegal charcoal continues and we have now confiscated more than 60 tonnes (up from 25 tonnes just three weeks ago) from the illegal traffickers travelling to the city.

Confiscated charcoal (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The rangers have seized at least 60 tonnes of illegal charcoal

Remember this is made from forests of Virunga National Park, and we cannot stand back and let this destruction happen.

The seized charcoal has been distributed for free to the thousands of refugees living near the park who are struggling daily to subsist.

In addition, the fuel wood bought with the $20,000 (10,000) raised through our blog is also being distributed to the Internally Displaced People (IDP).

These distribution measures are important. For the rangers to carry out effective law enforcement against the charcoal trade, people need to be provided with an alternative.

Map showing location of Virunga National Park (Source: WildlifeDirect)

However, the charcoal mafia is getting creative.

Now, instead of loading up charcoal sacks in regular trucks, they are stuffing them into military vehicles that can circumvent the blockades we set up.

This is a new challenge we must face.

We are still not back in the Gorilla Sector either. Our patrol posts continue to be occupied by rebels.

Innocent's wife, Aline, and their new-born son (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Innocent and Aline celebrate the arrival of their sixth child

But there is hope. After a three-week peace conference in January, more than 40 groups in eastern DRC signed an accord. One of the key elements is a ceasefire.

We hope that we will be able to return to the important job of protecting our mountain gorillas; we desperately need to check how they are faring during these difficult times.

We feel confident that there have been births, but what about deaths? We need to find out.

Finally, Innocent is happy to tell you of a birth in his family. His son was born on 23 January, and is his sixth child.

Innocent and his wife Aline have yet to name him, but they are going through many possibilities!


Read the previous diary entries from Diddy and Innocent:


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
Gorilla diary: Nov 2007 - Jan 2008
18 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature
Gorilla diary: August - October 2007
05 Nov 07 |  Science/Nature
The world of mountain gorillas
25 Jan 08 |  Science/Nature
Q&A: Gorilla protection diary
07 Feb 08 |  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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