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Last Updated: Monday, 18 February 2008, 15:22 GMT
Gorilla diary: Nov 2007 - Jan 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.

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.

MONDAY 21 JANUARY - CHARCOAL CLAMPDOWN CONTINUES

The patrols against the illegal charcoal trade in Virunga National Park continued this week with success.

Overturned charcoal truck (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Rangers managed to seize this truck-load of charcoal

We now have more than 25 tonnes of confiscated charcoal, which will be distributed to orphanages, schools and hospitals once the judicial process against the culprits is complete.

The Rangers beaten up last week by charcoal burners during these patrols are out of hospital and are now recovering at the park station.

As a result of widespread insecurity since September, we have noticed a 10-fold increase in illegal charcoal production, and it must be stopped. So we will continue these patrols relentlessly.

Rangers injured in an attack by charcoal traders (WildlifeDirect)
Rangers injured in last week's attack are back at the patrol station

The fuel wood for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) next to the Gorilla Sector is about to be distributed to the 4,500 IDPs at the camp at Kibati, just north of Goma.

This wood has been purchased with the $20,000 (10,000) donated by the readers of our blog in December.

We need to provide fuel wood so that people do not chop down the forests of Virunga, threatening wildlife habitat.

We cannot provide fuel wood indefinitely; it is a stop-gap measure until the UN and the humanitarian agencies take over.

Innocent with Kigoma, a blackback (WildlifeDirect)
Innocent with blackback Kigoma in Rwanda

Innocent has travelled to Rwanda to check on the Kwitonda gorilla family, which migrated from DRC to our neighbouring country in October 2004; as you know mountain gorillas do not respect international borders!

Kwitonda, meaning "he who is calm", has taken good care of his family of 16. He remains placid, and is visited by tourists almost daily who pay $500 (250) each for this privilege.

Some of these funds are sent back to DRC, as Kwitonda is still considered Congolese.

We notice that the gorilla babies are now juveniles and the juveniles sub-adults, while the two blackbacks (Kigoma and Karevuro) are turning silverback.

The family has grown up just like our own.

MONDAY 14 JANUARY - NEW YEAR, SAME PROBLEMS

Best wishes to you all for 2008 and apologies for an extended absence from this diary.

Anti-charcoal burning patrols, gorilla orphans and ranger arrests have occupied the opening days of the New Year.

Orphaned lowland gorilla Mapendo (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Mapendo gets used to life without her friend Vumilia

On 2 January, two lowland gorilla babies were confiscated from poachers and were brought to Virunga National Park.

During 10 nail biting days, vets struggled to save the very sick older orphan, named Vumilia, which means patient in Swahili.

Sadly, in the early hours of 13 January, he gave up the fight and died.

His friend and fellow orphan Mapendo, meaning love (because of the love she showed for Vumilia), is faring well and has been flown to Goma to facilitate her care.

While all this has been going on, we have continued our anti-charcoal burning patrols with intensity, to prevent Virunga's forest from being chopped down.

We have been attacking the illegal charcoal trade that destroys our park on two fronts: in the forest, and on the road.

Entering the forest has been a little dicey because armed militias are far from happy with our recent crackdown as we diminish their financial returns; the situation is dangerous.

So we have been stopping enormous charcoal-laden trucks on the road to Goma from the park and confiscating the cargo. This is not easy - there are protests and violent opposition by those who say the charcoal is theirs.

This week, three rangers were beaten up by the military because of our actions, and the head ranger was arrested for 24 hours.

Sacks of charcoal (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Despite the risks, the rangers' charcoal clampdown has had results

But we have really had some success and feel we are making a breakthrough. We have confiscated more than 250 sacks of charcoal in recent weeks.

Although there is a large peace conference to end the war going on at the moment in Goma, attended by some 1,300 delegates, there is still a lack of security.

We are still unable to access the Gorilla Sector and our patrol posts are still occupied by the rebels and the army.

Let's hope 2008 gets a little easier soon.

FRIDAY 14 DECEMBER - FUEL OR A FUTURE?

Construction of emergency camp (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The camp near the Gorilla Sector begins to take shape
Action is being taken to provide the refugees with fuel wood in order to stop them chopping down Virunga National Park.

WildlifeDirect, through our blog, and WWF have started a campaign to raise $20,000 to deal with the immediate threat.

Civilians fleeing the fighting need fuel wood to cook food and boil water. There is no alternative; they need it as much as they need shelter and sanitation.

There is always a delay in providing the basics to refugees, but it is a delay that could have enormous long-term effects on the park.

Border between DR Congo and Rwanda (right) (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The patchwork of fields in Rwanda stops at the DR Congo border

Even though we live from crisis-to-crisis, we do still need to try and think about the future.

If we let Virunga National Park be destroyed for fuel wood, then we are cutting off a valuable resource.

We estimate that illegal charcoal production has risen 10-fold since early September, as a result the insecurity.

We are under no illusions how difficult this is. The war is really going on, and there are nearly one million displaced people in the North Kivu province.

The Gorilla Sector is now devoid of civilians; only rebels and the military exchange fire and mortars.

Kadogo (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The rangers are sure the gorillas, like Kadogo, can hear the fighting

We are certain that the gorillas can hear all the chaos. We must stress that they are not a target in all of this, they just happen to be stuck in the middle.

We were both caught in crossfire this week, just next to the Gorilla Sector.

The rebels were attacking the army, or vice versa. To be honest, it is just impossible to say as everything changes each day.

What we do know is that we did have to speed up to avoid the bullets.

The situation is overwhelming for everyone who is not directly involved in this conflict. We all want it to end, yet why does no-one listen?

FRIDAY 7 DECEMBER - FROM BAD TO WORSE

Refugee camp (Image: Wildlife Direct)
Those fleeing the violence have set up camp nearby
Not only has the fighting increased in brutality and intensity over the past week, but there are thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives.

These refugees, or Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) as humanitarian agencies refer to them, often find a safe haven with family members or in camps.

The camps are usually organised by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

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

Why are we telling you this?

Well, some 4,000 people are camped at Kibumba, which is right next to the gorilla sector. It is not an official camp because the UNHCR says there is no water.

It is not logistically feasible, but these people have nothing - and nothing is being provided.

So, naturally, these refugees turn to the park. Here, there are animals to be poached, and charcoal to be made.

A charcoal kilne (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The team fears the Gorilla Sector will be used to make charcoal

Consequently, the Gorilla Sector is now facing another severe and immediate threat that requires urgent action.

The refugees at Kibumba need to be moved to a properly managed IDP camp and given assistance, such as food, shelter, water, sanitation, and of course fuel wood.

If people are not given fuel wood, they have no choice but to destroy the park.

The humanitarian crisis is paramount and needs to be dealt with by the government and organisations who have the resources to help.

A group of gorillas (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Rangers warn that the gorillas' habitat is under 'immediate threat'

But we still need to protect Virunga National Park and our 250-sq-km Gorilla Sector, as we must think long-term.

If the mountain gorillas' habitat is damaged or destroyed, this will directly affect the survival of these critically endangered animals.

One day, when we have peace and tourists visit us, the mountain gorillas will represent a major pillar of economic revenue for the people of North Kivu.

If only for this reason alone, we must protect these special animals.

FRIDAY 30 NOVEMBER - THE WAIT GOES ON

Rangers tracking mountain gorillas (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The fighting has prevented rangers entering the sector to track gorillas
Another week, another wait. There are rumours that the border with Rwanda is going to close in order to cut off the rebels' supplies. This, of course, would cut us off too.

The fighting has continued, right near the Gorilla Sector. More rangers were on the move away from the area, as were villagers and farmers.

The land around the sector is utterly deserted, apart from the army and rebels. The empty houses and unfarmed fields, usually bustling with colour and activity, give the place an eerie atmosphere.

But the words of support we receive through our blog help us to keep going and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Silverback Kabirizi (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Silverbacks, like Kabirizi, emit a scent from armpit glads to ward off strangers

We wonder if the gorillas sense this same eeriness. Do they notice we are not there to protect them?

Mountain gorillas have five senses, like us. They taste and see more or less like we do, but their touch is less sensitive.

The hair all over their body, and the thick skin on the souls of their feet and the palms of their hands mean that they do not get stung by wasps and nettles.

They don't hear as well as we do either, and some of the vegetation they eat would make us come out in bumps and rashes.

Silverback Mawazo (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Mapuwa's thick skin means he does not feel nettle or wasp stings

But their sense of smell is probably more developed; dominant males may make crucial decisions to move on or stay put on smell alone.

When silverbacks sense strangers in their midst, they also let off a very particular odour from the glands in their armpits.

It is this scent that is the first thing that hits you when you visit a family of gorillas in the forest - it is pungent.

We hope this smell will ward off any unwanted visitors into the sector.

FRIDAY 23 NOVEMBER - TAKING COVER

Fighting between the army and rebels escalated this week, near where our families live next to Virunga National Park.

Innocent (left) and his father (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Innocent (left) and his father, who is also a head ranger
Our friends and relatives were hiding under beds, tables, chairs - anywhere to dull the sound of the bullets.

Then it all subsided, and we were back to the waiting game, for us and the mountain gorillas.

We did manage to conduct a successful patrol into the park and arrest some 30 charcoal burners.

As we have mentioned already, those living in the surrounding area use charcoal to cook. Indeed, it is the only domestic fuel source.

Smoke from a charcoal kiln (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Smoke signals the location of an illegal charcoal kiln
But we have to try to protect the park, and hope that the international experts will soon come up with a fuel alternative that will prevent the destruction of the forest.

People who cut down the trees to make charcoal kilns come from our country or Rwanda. For every arrest, we impose a fine: $20 for a national and $50 for a foreigner.

We can hold the detainees for up to 48 hours before they are sent to Goma for a judicial process.

Often they do not have the money. These people are poor and are just trying to eek out a living, so we just let them go.

A local meeting (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Not everyone is aware of the global importance of mountain gorillas
Jean-Bosco, a ranger working with communities, helps us with this too.

For example, he goes to churches, schools and military camps and explains the value of the mountain gorillas and the park. This was crucial after the July massacre.

Many villagers and farmers around the park struggle to survive on a day-to-day basis, so understandably they do not know about conservation.

But the park has the potential to attract significant revenues for our province from gorilla watching tourism and other activities.

So while the fighting continues and people hide under furniture, we need to protect the park for the future.

FRIDAY 16 NOVEMBER - GOOD NEWS AT LAST

Humba, a silverback (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Silverback Humba and his family are reported to be alive and well

Good news! This week a ranger made it into the Gorilla Sector and saw the Humba and Kabirizi families.

These groups represent just over half of our 72 habituated mountain gorillas.

Patrice Tuyisenge - usually based at the patrol post of Jomba near the Rwandan and Ugandan borders - was granted access to the sector by rebels for just one day.

Patrice does not know how to identify each mountain gorilla by the nose-print like us, but we are confident, from what he described to us, that the two families are doing well.

Juvenile Kitagenda (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The future survival of the gorillas lies with juveniles, like Kitagenda

The Humba group has nine individuals, while the Kabirizi family - the largest group in our country - has 31 members.

Patrice was not able to tell us exactly the number of gorillas he saw in each group in the short time he had, but the number sounded about right.

Humba, which means "placid", is a very calm family. As we have said before, gorilla families are named after the dominant male, the silverback.

Kabirizi is led by a feisty male with a propensity to charge and was named after a ranger who died in the 1990s.

He was a non-habituated solitary when he took over the habituated family in 1998 after his predecessor, Ndungutse, was killed in 1997 in cross-fire between the Congolese army and Rwandan rebels.

Silverback Kabirizi (Image:WildlifeDirect)
Kabirizi is another silverback who has managed to protect his family

We have no idea if Patrice or any other rangers will be allowed in again by the rebels. There is just no way to tell.

We must not forget that it is the conflict between these rebels and the army that has largely prevented us from protecting our gorillas since 3 September.

It is also imperative we get back in to the sector to carry out a proper identification of all mountain gorillas.

But at least after so many weeks of frustration we can feel comfort in our hearts that some of the gorillas are safe, for now.

FRIDAY 9 NOVEMBER - SEEKING JUSTICE

The fighting continues in our Gorilla Sector, but we are still trying to bring to justice those responsible for the July massacre of the Rugendo family.

Senkwekwe, a silverback mountain gorilla (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Senkwekwe, head of the Rugend family, was killed in July

Two suspects have been detained since August and are being held in Goma.

The case is being heard by the Tribunal des Grandes Instances - the highest court in the province.

The first hearing was scheduled for early October, but this was postponed until mid-November to allow for further enquiries.

This investigation, as you can well imagine, is being hampered by the current security situation.

Innocent monitoring Senkwekwe (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Innocent monitoring Senkwekwe, just weeks before the massacre

With armed militias and government forces engaged in conflict, it is not conducive to an investigation of this magnitude.

The area where the killings took place is inaccessible as a result of the rebel and military presence. People are also scattered as they fled from the fighting.

The law under which these suspects will be tried is Number 69-041 of August 1969, entitled Nature Conservation.

In Article Eight, it states that those found guilty of killing mountain gorillas - a highly protected species according to the law - can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Ndakasi, named after a former ranger (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Rangers hope Ndakasi, born in April, is safe and well

So we, the Congolese Wildlife Authority, want to carry out more investigations.

There are also two suspects awaiting trial who were caught with the dead infant mountain gorilla that was allegedly going to be trafficked in September.

This investigation is also ongoing, and progress is being made but we cannot report on anything otherwise it may affect the outcome.

DR Congo's judicial system is under-resourced so things simply do not move as quickly as they would in the UK or the US. And, of course, there is the current conflict.

But proceedings are underway, investigations will continue, and we hope to see an outcome soon for the mountain gorillas.

FRIDAY 2 NOVEMBER - ANOTHER LIFE LOST

Map showing location of Virunga National Park (Source: WildlifeDirect)
This week we lost another ranger. He was shot and killed while out on an anti-poaching patrol north of the park station at Rumangabo.

The Mai Mai rebels, a Congolese group that seeks the destruction of the park and earns income from the bushmeat trade, ambushed the rangers.

Another ranger was also injured during this unprovoked attack. He is now recovering in hospital.

This is a sign of the times. Everyone is on edge.

Bukima, a solitary gorilla (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Without patrols, the rangers cannot monitor the gorillas
Fighting continues between the government and the rebels of dissident General Laurent Nkunda.

We have lost track of how many times we think there will be a solution, but there is one thing we are certain about - our mountain gorillas remain unprotected.

This week, US news programme CBS 60 Minutes was in Goma and we did a long interview with presenter Anderson Cooper.

We hope that this, in conjunction with this diary, will help spread the word.

Gorilla rangers (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The rangers are being targeted by rebel gunmen
We need peace, we need to protect the gorillas, and we need to fight the cutting down of trees to make charcoal. This is destroying Virunga National Park.

Our park, which covers some 8,000 sq km (3,100 sq miles), is Africa's oldest national park. It was founded in 1925 and declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1994.

There are swamps and lowland forests here, and also snowy mountains. Many birds from Siberia come here to spend the winter.

Elephants (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Virunga National Park's wildlife is of global importance
It is also home to several flagship species, including gorillas, chimps, elephants, buffaloes and hippos. We need to protect it.

When the fighting has stopped we must find an alternative source of fuel for domestic consumption - no more charcoal from our park.

We need to help families with subsidies for cooking gas; at least this is one of the immediate solutions.

Only this way will we stop the looting of our forests and secure the future for our children.


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: 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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