Page last updated at 13:57 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Diary: Protecting mountain gorillas

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 2007, rebel forces have controlled the area, threatening to kill any conservationists or gorilla rangers who attempted to enter the area.

Recently, the rangers and their families had to flee from their homes and live in makeshift camps as the latest outbreak of violence engulfed the eastern part of the country.

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 current events are hampering their efforts.

MONDAY 23 MARCH - FIRST-TIME MOTHER

Last week, one of the gorilla trackers came back from patrol and said that he thought he had seen an infant being held by one of the females in the Humba group.

Female gorilla and its infant (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Innocent captured this image of mother and baby together

The next day I went into the forest to confirm the birth, and saw that it was the female Bonane who had become a first-time mother.

Despite her inexperience, she seems to know what she is doing. The baby was doing fine too, and busy feeding as I took their picture.

This is the second birth we have had in 2009 and is an important contribution to this critically endangered species.

The war in this part of north Kivu has calmed down since January, although the threats to the park remain.

During two months of patrols, we found 1,200 snares in the forest where the mountain gorillas live.

The snares are left by poachers to catch antelope, but gorillas can also be trapped causing loss of a limb or even death.

Yesterday we decided to burn our stockpile of snares as a symbolic message that poaching will not be tolerated.

Female gorilla feeding its infant (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Bonane has settled into motherhood without too many difficulties

Another concern at the moment is crop-raiding by some of the gorillas.

Unfortunately, a couple of the groups have learned the bad habit of going into fields on the edge of the park and eating crops, such as maize.

The local villagers are understandably unhappy about that, and the potential for conflict is real.

In the past, we hired local people to beat on drums and make noises to scare the gorillas back into the forest, but that doesn't seem to work anymore; the gorillas have got used to it.

We are looking into other solutions to this problem, including spraying chilli on the crops, or installing electric fences.

Innocent

FRIDAY 27 FEBRUARY - JOINT PATROLS AND A NEW ARRIVAL
Baby gorilla
The baby will be named after a ranger who died protecting gorillas

Over the past few weeks we have re-launched a series of joint patrols in the Gorilla Sector with our Rwandan counterparts.

Joint patrols with the Rwandan park authorities were launched in the late 1990s.

It was an incredibly innovative and very brave approach, given the political realities of the time.

Until 2003, the two countries were effectively at war, but both were able to acknowledge the importance of protecting the Mountain Gorilla Sector because of its universal importance to humanity.

Despite being at war, the two countries were able to work together on the ground to protect a critically important piece of world heritage.

Collaboration on a wider scale between Rwanda and DR Congo has leapt forward over the past couple of months, which gave us the opportunity to relaunch these joint patrols.

It is very important that we maintain them, not just because they play a key role in protecting the gorillas from snares and poachers, but because they nurture the friendship that we have, as conservationists, with our colleagues in Rwanda, whatever the political difficulties of the moment.

Rangers
Rangers from DR Congo and Rwanda are joining forces for joint patrols

This week also brought some good news coming from the Kabirizi group of mountain gorillas.

On Tuesday night, a female called Mahisho gave birth, bringing the total of habituated mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park to 82.

We cannot tell yet if the new arrival is female or male, but both mother and infant are doing fine.

Every addition to this critically endangered species makes a big difference and is a tribute to the sacrifices that the rangers have made over the years.

Following tradition, the gorilla will be named after one of the many rangers who have died in the service of protecting Virunga's wildlife.


Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga National Park director

FRIDAY 30 JANUARY - DISARMING MILITIAS
Last week, I went on a mission with the traditional leader, called a Mwami Ndezi, of more than two million people in North Kivu in a last minute effort to plead with militias in the park to put their weapons down and turn themselves in.

Weapons from militia fighters (Image: Gorilla.cd)
There are efforts to disarm and disband the militia groups

The joint operation between the Rwandan and Congolese armies had just begun, targeting the FDLR militias.

As always, the real victims in the fighting will be the unarmed innocent civilian population, so the Mwami's position was simple:

If militias can be convinced to disarm and demobilise, the battle will be shorter and civilian lives will be spared.

The Congolese and Rwandan forces say that any militias can put down their weapons and join the voluntary disarmament process; those that refuse will be disarmed by force.

Voluntary disarmament needs a bit of explanation. The process is known as DDR (disarmement, demobilisation and reintegration), and applies to Congolese armed groups such as the Mai-Mai or DDRRR.

Child soldier (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Some of the Mai-Mai fighters were hardly into their teens

DDR also includes repatriation to Rwanda and resettlement for non-Congolese militias, such as the FDLR.

The UN's peacekeeping mission in Congo, Monuc, is one of the key players in this process, and also took part in the our joint effort with the Mwami.

We left early in the morning for the talks, and after a few hours we suddenly came across Rwandan soldiers on the move.

There must have been about 2,000 soldiers, in single column, walking along the road.

It was a startling reminder that the clock was ticking, and time was not on our side.

A long, dusty drive brought us to Ishasha in the early afternoon, and from there we entered the park and travelled to the fishing village of Nyakakoma on the edge of Lake Edward.

When we arrived, we were surrounded by militiamen, all bearing arms and many of them smelling of alcohol.

Pierre and the Mwami (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Pierre (left) and the Mwami hoped to convince the militia to disarm

Some of them looked like they were barely into their teens.

These children are now potential targets in a massive onslaught by two national armies, by now a matter hours away.

The Mwami called a meeting with the Mai-Mai and FDLR leaders, and my hopes were not that high at first.

How do you convince a militia leader to give up his weapon and hand himself in to the authorities?

After about one hour, the militia commanders retired to make their decision. When they returned, amazingly, they agreed.

The Mwami had convinced them to co-operate and to come back with us and to hand themselves in to the Congolese military authorities.

In all, seven Mai-Mai and one FDLR agreed to come back to Ishasha with us.

They were to hand themselves in with their weapons, and then work out the procedure for their troops to follow.

They should all get conscripted into a training programme and will then either be integrated into the army or demobilised with some training to begin a new life.


Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga National Park director

FRIDAY 23 JANUARY - BEGINNING OF THE END?
CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda (Getty Images)
Could the arrest of Laurent Nkunda signal the end of the conflict

We have been receiving reports that CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested last night.

I don't know how it seems from the outside, but for us living through these events, it started with disbelief, then confusion, followed by amazement.

Right now, we don't dare hope that peace is finally here.

Last week, Bosco - a very senior CNDP commander - announced a comprehensive ceasefire with the Congolese army.

It was unclear if this was the official CNDP position, and many of us didn't pay much attention to it.

However, it soon transpired that the Rwandan chief of staff was present, together with senior Congolese military officers; that's an unusual mix.

Soon after, CNDP then formally confirmed the ceasefire.

Earlier this week, there were reports of significant Rwandan army movements into Congo. We had heard this before, and I don't always believe it.

Rwandan military moving into Congo is not a joking matter. But suddenly, there they were calmly marching past our park station at Rumangabo.

Ranger dismantling a snare (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Snares have been one of the biggest threats to the wildlife in recent months

On Thursday, we looked on as truckloads of Congolese military crossed the battlefronts into CNDP territory.

Now, they're all working together: Rwandan army, Congolese soldiers and the CNDP rebel force.

It remains to be seen what will happen to General Nkunda himself.

The rangers of Virunga National Park have been working under very difficult conditions during the war.

Many have been displaced with their families, some have been caught in the crossfire, and several have died in the line of duty.

We hope that this week marks the beginning of the end of this conflict and that the rangers can get back to work protecting wildlife.

In particular, there is much to be done in the area of the park that had until now been the front-line, such as monitoring the population of mountain gorillas and destroying the hundreds of snares that have been placed in the forest during our absence.


Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga National Park director

MONDAY 19 JANUARY - MILITIA KILL RANGER
Safari Kakule (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Safari had a promising future in conservation ahead of him
It is with great sadness that we have to share the news with you that one of our rangers, Safari Kakule, has been killed.

Safari was at our patrol post in Tshiaberimu with six other rangers last week when they were attacked without warning by Mai Mai militia.

The team of rangers defended their position and managed to apprehend a Mai Mai officer.

But the attack was extremely violent and they were greatly outnumbered. As they retreated from their position, Safari was hit by the attackers' gunfire.

Safari was an exceptional ranger, who had worked with the gorillas in Tshiaberimu for several years.

Safari Kakule and Pierre Peron (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Happier times: Safari poses for a photo with communications officer Pierre

He had recently trained to be a para-vet, and he was expected to play a very important role in protecting the gorillas of Tshiaberimu.

His colleagues carried Safari's body with them as they moved to safety and brought it to Kyondo, several hours from where the attack took place.

From there he will be taken back to Lubero, and a final resting place at his family home.

It may not look like it in the photo, but Safari was a big guy. What the picture does not show is that I am actually standing on a mound of earth just to be level with him.

He was intelligent, committed, and knew a lot about gorillas.

In my mind, he was someone who would go on to big things and would have made an important contribution to conservation in Virunga.

He will be greatly missed.


Pierre Peron, Virunga National Park communications officer


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 more than 10 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 18 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.



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SEE ALSO
Gorilla diary: August - December 2008
20 Jan 09 |  Science & Environment
Gorilla diary: February - July 2008
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Gorilla diary: Nov 2007 - Jan 2008
18 Feb 08 |  Science & Environment
Gorilla diary: August - October 2007
05 Nov 07 |  Science & Environment
The world of mountain gorillas
25 Jan 08 |  Science & Environment
Q&A: Gorilla protection diary
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Q&A: DR Congo conflict
27 Nov 09 |  Africa
New arrival for DR Congo gorillas
22 Aug 07 |  Science & Environment
Missing DR Congo gorillas 'dead'
17 Aug 07 |  Science & Environment
Concern over gorilla 'executions'
26 Jul 07 |  Science & Environment
DR Congo rebel threat to gorillas
21 May 07 |  Africa
Apes 'extinct in a generation'
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