Innocent monitoring Senkwekwe, one of the gorillas in Virunga
The Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park and the surrounding Virunga volcanoes region are home to more than half of the world's population of mountain gorillas.
To ensure the long-term survival of this threatened species, teams of rangers monitor and patrol the park's Gorilla Sector.
Two of the rangers, Diddy and Innocent, have been answering readers' questions about life on conservation's frontline.
Dedicating your lives to protect the gorillas makes you both true heroes; I'm sure many people are wishing you continued safety and success. Many of these people would also like to work as a ranger on the frontline of animal protection. What kind of training/experience did you need in order to do the job?
Steve Parker, Edinburgh, Scotland
Innocent: Rangers in Virunga National Park all receive wildlife conservation and paramilitary training on an ongoing basis. We receive basic training when we first start, and courses throughout our careers, in order to improve our abilities and rise up the hierarchy. We need to learn how to protect the fauna and flora of Virunga, and deal with the threats of armed militias and poachers. For many of us, our fathers or grandfathers were also rangers, so it is not just a job, but a vocation.
I am just an ordinary citizen who cares deeply about wildlife everywhere, but especially about your work with the gorillas. What can I do to help and support you?
Karin Lease, Graton, CA, USA
Diddy & Innocent: Our primary goal is to raise the visibility of what rangers do to protect the gorillas. For years we have operated in isolation, but since we started our blog we have received support from all over the world. Funds are always needed, which can be donated via WildlifeDirect, but we also need individuals like yourselves to lobby on our behalf. Mountain gorillas are a world heritage, not just a Congolese one. So we must work together to protect them.
My heart goes out to you, your families, the gorillas and to the people in the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp during this terrible time. Is there anyone in particular who we can send letters to ask for help for your situation? Wishing you strength and safety.
Carla de Mos, Los Gatos, California, USA
Innocent: Again, we cannot stress enough that lobbying is vital. We attempt to lobby our government, but to little effect. I believe that by lobbying US political representatives and environmental pressure groups, this would boost the visibility of the threats to the gorillas. The humanitarian crisis in DR Congo must take priority, but there are only 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, and we could lose them all.
I always read and see on TV that in order to see the gorillas, one must walk for hours up the mountains. It occurred to me that the gorillas are isolated from people and are deep in the forest. Yet in your diary, you wrote that the fighting was very close to the gorillas and that they have been shot.
Keren Or, Israel
Innocent: Keren, you are correct that often you need to walk for hours to visit the mountain gorillas. They can be high up in the forest, amid the bamboo which is their favourite food. But the Gorilla Sector in my country is only 250 sq-km and sometimes the gorillas are not that far from the edge of the park. They may be just 10 or 15 minutes walk into the forest. In addition, the Rugendo family (which suffered terrible loses in the massacre in July 2007), is so settled that they come out of the forest sometimes to eat the crops of the local people. This, combined with the fact that the area is simply overrun, means that gorillas can get caught in the crossfire.
Would a shoot-to-kill policy on poachers be the answer? It was in the not-too-distant past that it was used in other African nations to successfully protect the rhino population. I appreciate that this is not a great solution, but surely such a deterrent is needed in these desperate times?
Finally I wonder if you have access to CCTV equipment to help monitor the animals, which is transportable as they move?
Paul Dalowsky, Doncaster, England
Diddy: It is not our decision whether to have a shoot-to-kill policy. This would require co-ordination between the Ministries of Environment and Defence. But you are right - we need to find a solution to this crisis. Unfortunately, it is difficult often to distinguish between armed militias and poachers, so first the war needs to leave the park. Regarding CCTV, we would need the expertise and the funds to help us. We need to know if it is possible in rainy forests with no source of electricity.
What organisation best supports the rangers, the welfare of the apes and the park? Do you have any suggestions on what is needed to move the camp of refugees away from the protected habitat? Do you have any negotiations ongoing with the men responsible for the attacks on the apes and the habitat? What do they need/want to stop the attacks on the apes?
William Rodriguez, Chicago, IL, USA
Diddy: There are several organisations that support us and the park, including: WildlifeDirect, Frankfurt Zoological Society, London Zoological Society, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund International & International Gorilla Conservation Program.
We hope the attacks on the gorillas will stop. During this recent conflict it is important to stress that the animals are not a target. They just happen to live in a very dangerous part of the world that is strategically important to the rebels to get supplies. So we need peace. Peace and the removal of the rebels from our Gorilla Sector.
Why hasn't the local government increased patrols to keep the rebels out of the park? Where are the food aid and supply drops for the IDPs? Do the rangers accept short-term (three-or-four-week) international volunteers?
Jon Everatt, Vancouver, Canada
Innocent: Jon, the situation - as you know - is complicated. Organisations could be doing more to help the IDPs, but it is all about resources and working within a dangerous environment. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is in charge of helping the refugees, and specifically with the camps when people are fleeing from the fighting. We, the rangers, increased patrols in the Gorilla Sector after the July massacre, but then we were forced to flee when rebels took over and the fighting started. No, we do not have volunteers. Training and experience are needed to operate in this dangerous country.
My question involves the current occupation of the park and their attitudes towards gorilla meat, charcoal trade, and gorilla conservation. Would they like to see the park destroyed with the gorillas in order to focus on the charcoal trade, or do they support tourism in the region? Have you heard any word of the gorillas' current situation?
James Turley, Saratoga Springs, New York, USA
Innocent: Those who occupy the park do not seek to destroy the gorillas. While the gorillas are critically endangered and must be protected, the major threat at present is destruction of habitat due to the illegal charcoal trade. Thousands of people around the park and in neighbouring Rwanda turn to the forests of Virunga National Park to get fuel to cook and boil water. This means we could lose, for example, the bamboo forests where the gorillas love to feed.
So the war needs to stop, and then we can all focus on tourism. The gorilla-watching tourism industry represents millions of dollars per year, and would help offset the miserable poverty of the thousands living in the buffer zone of the park. But before we do this, we need to know the fate of the 72 habituated mountain gorillas of DR Congo; we have not seen them since 3 September 2007.
Why do people kill gorillas?
James John, Atlanta, Georgia, US
Diddy: The reason for the massacre of gorillas last July was the illegal charcoal trade. The charcoal mafia wanted to sabotage the work that the Congolese Wildlife Authority was doing to crack down on this illicit trade. This is considered to be one of the major threats to the survival of these unique animals. In addition to this threat, gorillas are poached by traffickers; the animals are caught in snares (not necessarily intended for them), and they get caught in crossfire when there is fighting in the sector.
Does the community around the gorillas' habitat support sustaining them? Also, was last year's killings the result of either poaching or militia? If it was militia, why would they attack gorillas?
Karen, Chapel Hill, NC USA
Innocent: It was not militia who attacked the gorillas in July. The massacre was a direct result of the $30m-a-year (£15m) illegal charcoal trade. It was a sign that we had to stop trying to fight those who are benefiting financially from the destruction of Virunga National Park.
Isn't anybody trying to save the land? You told us about the similarities between the gorillas and humans then why don't you save the land - they have feelings too!
Diddy: The land and the wildlife are intricately linked. One cannot survive without the other. Protecting the mountain gorillas, the hippos, the elephants, the chimpanzees and all the other species is fundamental to maintaining the boundaries of Africa's oldest park and preserving this unique ecosystem.
I am fascinated by gorillas. Are Diddy and Innocent able to interact at very close range with these amazing animals? Do they show affection towards humans? It would be great to hear about some everyday activities regarding their lifestyle.
Lisa-Marie, Southfields, London
Diddy & Innocent: Mountain gorillas have behaviour that is incredibly close to ours. Mothers nurse their infants much like humans, and infant gorillas play like children. Gorillas mourn the death of a loved one, and like us can be sad and happy. Remember their DNA is almost identical to ours. So yes, we can interact with them, and more importantly gorillas who we monitor recognise us.
At what age do the gorillas die and why are they so wild like this?
Innocent: Gorillas live to about 40 years of age in the wild. Gorillas, especially mountain gorillas, do not live well in captivity, so they need to stay in the wild - this is where they belong. No mountain gorilla has ever reproduced in captivity either, which is another reason we must protect them from extinction.
How are you treated as a ranger, as opposed to an ordinary person living in DR Congo?
Samantha, Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa
Diddy: When I am in civilian clothes I am treated like any other person in this country. When I am in uniform, people know I am a ranger and that I work to protect the park. Most people know that this is a difficult job, but we all lead difficult lives here. So while most people will show respect for rangers, we are still just normal people underneath the uniform.
Why do people still not understand others' lives; how can they kill innocent gorillas? What was your reaction to this?
Julius Edward, Oshakati, Namibia
Diddy & Innocent: We were devastated. It was the worst day of our lives and we do not understand how anyone can kill gorillas. The Rugendo family was the most habituated family in our country, so it was tantamount to walking into a children's playground and opening fire. We simply will never understand.
Do gorillas suffer from particular type of disease?
Diddy: Gorillas can suffer from many diseases like us, including flu, bronchitis, tooth ache, arthritis and cancer. But we worry most about those very contagious diseases that could wipe out the mountain gorillas, such as ebola and tuberculosis.
PROFILE OF THE RANGERS
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.
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.