Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Gorilla diary: August - December 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 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.

FRIDAY 19 DECEMBER - FAMILIAR FACES

This week saw a major step forward in our census of the gorillas in the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park.

Three gorillas that survived the 2007 massacre (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Three of the gorillas that survived the 2007 massacre

We have finally seen the Rugendo Family, our most habituated group of gorillas in DR Congo, but also the most traumatized.

It was this group of gorillas that were massacred in July 2007, when five members of the family were killed for no apparent reason.

This week, we found the group very close to the site of the massacre and were pleasantly surprised to see that the family now numbers nine individuals, up from the five that survived the attack.

Today, the group is also being led by two silverbacks, Pili-Pili and Bukima, who were both solitary males last August.

In addition Lubutu, who until now had been listed as missing from the Humba family, is fine and well with the Rugendo family.

Bukima, a silverback mountain gorilla (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Bukima is one of the two silverbacks that now head the Rugendo family

Finally, a new female that we have never seen before has also joined the group.

We have named her Bariyanga, after a ranger who died from illness this October.

Seeing the Rugendo family again, with the new individuals, brought us and the other rangers a great deal of joy. It really was one of the best days so far of the census.

This family has always been special to us because rangers started habituating the group back in the mid 1980s.

After the massacre of July 2007, we wondered whether the gorillas would manage to stay together.

Not only have they stayed together, but they have grown, are healthy and now have a new family structure.

FRIDAY 12 DECEMBER - FAMILY FORTUNES

The survey of habituated mountain gorillas has progressed well, and we have been able to get good data on two of the gorilla families.

Rangers recording details of a gorilla (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Rangers have been able to survey the gorillas for the first time in over a year

In the Kabirizi group, two gorillas are missing and there is one new female that we have not seen before.

She must have migrated from an unhabituated group that we have never followed - there are up to 130 gorillas that fit in that category.

There is also a female who has migrated from the Kabirizi group to the Humba group.

Unfortunately, we have had to halt the survey for a little while because Innocent has been sick.

Rangers walking in the Gorilla Sector (Image: Gorilla.cd)
The rangers did not waste any time getting back into the Gorilla Sector

He returned to Goma, where he was diagnosed with malaria and typhoid.

Innocent is the only person in the world who knows every single habituated gorilla in Virunga National Park and who can identify them accurately.

He will hopefully be back with us in a couple days so that we can move on to the other gorilla groups, including the Rugendo family, which experienced the massacre of five gorillas last year.

It will be very interesting to see how they have fared.

We are taking advantage of the break in hostilities to rebuild our camp and to go on anti-poaching patrols in the Gorilla Sector.

We have been seeing a lot more snares in the forest than we used to before the war.

Rangers showing some of the snares they found (Image: Gorilla.cd)
The rangers have been busy removing snares from the national park

On one single patrol, one of our teams found 43 snares made of rope or wire.

The traps are placed in order to catch antelope, but gorillas can easily fall victim to them too.

We came close to catching some poachers last week, but they escaped through the forest.

Our rangers fired warning shots in the air - hopefully they got the message that we are back.

FRIDAY 05 DECEMBER - REUNITED AT LAST

We have finally been able to go back into the Gorilla Sector, after 15 months absence.

Humba, a silverback (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Rangers have been back in the Gorilla Sector for the first time in 15 months

Our park director Emmanuel de Merode was able to negotiate with both the Congolese government and the CNDP rebels, who currently control the Gorilla Sector, to give us access once again in order to undertake a survey of the gorilla populations.

We are very grateful that both sides in the conflict understand that wildlife conservation must continue even amid the conflict. As park rangers we are now considered neutral.

So last week we drove up to our old patrol post at Bukima, at the edge of the forest on the slopes of the Mikeno Volcano.

The road was in a very bad condition and hadn't been used in more than a year, but we finally made it.

We quickly set up some basics tents and went straight into the forest. We found the Humba family group of mountain gorillas first, only an hour form the patrol post.

It was such a relief to see that they were doing well and very gratifying to be able to get back to work.

Ranger and gorilla (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Friends reunited: The rangers meet long lost friends

The survey is likely to take us more than a month in order to find the six habituated groups of gorillas and identify the 73 gorillas that we had counted at the last count in September 2007.

We know each gorilla well, but to help us jog our memories we are using sketches of gorilla nose-prints to make sure we get our identifications right.

Nose-prints are the wrinkles and marks on a gorilla's nose that are unique to each individual.

So far we have found the Humba and Kabirizi groups, as well as a solitary silverback (dominant male) known as Karateka.

There are some individuals missing from the groups, but the good news is that we are finding new additions to populations, including five baby gorillas in the Kabirizi group.

We are keeping our fingers crossed that we will find the other groups in as good shape.

FRIDAY 21 NOVEMBER - REBELS GAINING GROUND
UN escort vehicles (Image: Gorilla.cd)
The rangers and their families were escorted to safety by UN troops

Rwindi park station has been taken by the rebels.

The fighting was intense; more than 40 rangers and their families were caught up in the middle of it and had to sleep in trenches and hide in the undergrowth.

Finally, after four days of heavy gunfire, the rangers and their families managed to leave the area with a UN escort.

They have now joined the others in the refugee camp in Goma.

The rebels now control almost 50% of Virunga National Park, from the southern perimeter to the southern shores of Lake Edward.

We, along with the park's animals, are just caught up in all of this; it is immensely frustrating.

The situation over the last few days has been calmer, but we are still awaiting a political solution.

Mapima (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Mapima, the rescued chimpanzee, is responding well to treatment

The UN has said it will send 3,000 more troops, to add to the 17,000 already here.

Our director, Emmanuel de Merode, has gone to our HQ at Rumangabo to find a way for us to get back into the park and do our job.

All we want to do is get back to protecting the animals of Virunga, especially the mountain gorillas.

The process our director is undertaking is significant as it could re-open the way for us to work in the park and the Gorilla Sector, which the rebels have controlled since September 2007.

These next few days are critical.

On a positive note, Mapima, the seized baby chimp, is getting stronger and gradually ridding herself of parasites.

While chimpanzees share many diseases with humans, they are certainly exposed to more when they leave their natural habitat, which makes them vulnerable.

But she is drinking almost one litre of milk a day and eating lots of fruit. Banana and passion fruit are her favourites.

FRIDAY 14 NOVEMBER - MOVING ON

There have been media reports that the rangers' station in Rwindi has fallen into the hands of the CNDP rebels.

Distribution of beans to rangers' families (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Park officials do not have the resources to keep the camp open

However, warden Jean-Pierre Jobogo tells us that this is not true.

The rangers there have indeed had to evacuate the station, but this was in order to avoid fleeing Congolese Army soldiers.

Earlier this week, the same soldiers had looted the nearby town of Kanyabayonga.

They are also shooting antelope in the savannah plains around Rwindi, but the rangers are powerless to stop them.

Over the course of today and tomorrow, the 243 rangers and their families (more than 1,000 people in total) are moving from our dedicated refugee camp in Goma to a larger camp for internally displaced people (IDPs in humanitarian-speak) in Bulengo.

This camp is run by the UN, and our families will be integrated with thousands of other people who have fled the past month's hostilities.

Boy standing in front of a bowl of potatoes (Image: Gorilla.cd)
The families were given enough food to last a few weeks

The humanitarian agencies working at that camp are much more experienced than us.

We are confident that the families will receive all they need until the time comes when they can finally return home.

To ensure that they made this move fully equipped, this morning we distributed enough food to last a few weeks.

It included the usual items, such as beans, potatoes, rice, salt, cooking oil, and soap.

At the Bulengo camp, they will receive even more and, hopefully, the children will soon be able to start attending school there.

We had been hoping that the current situation would pass, but we have resigned ourselves to the fact that we may be in it for the long haul.

Pierre Peron, Virunga National Park communications officer

THURSDAY 13 NOVEMBER - BABY CHIMP CONFISCATED
Mapima with Dr Kalonji (Image: Gorilla.cd)
The chimp was examined by a vet after it was confiscated

We received a call on Wednesday morning from a contact who told us that a chimp was being kept illegally in Goma.

After investigating, we found out that an expat had actually purchased the chimp from a soldier after he saw him mistreating it.

Soldiers often keep pets, including chimps, and have been pictured with them on the front line.

Buying a chimp is illegal here in DR Congo, but the expat clearly thought he was doing the right thing. We went to the man's house and legally seized the chimp, who he had named Mapima.

Mapima has now been checked by our staff vet Dr Arthur Kalonji. He has treated her parasite infection and some sores she had on her legs.

Soldier with a chimpanzee (Image: AFP)
Animals, including chimps, are kept as pets by front line soldiers

Dr Kalonji thinks she got these from being tied up by the military.

She is between seven and 10 months old, and is now being cared for by one of our experts.

We are working on the paperwork in order to expedite Mapima to JACK, a chimp sanctuary in Lubumbashi, in the south-east corner of the country.

We don't know how long the chimp was with the soldiers before the expat bought her.

One thing is for certain, she would have witnessed her family in the forest being massacred.

She now needs to be given the chance to recover from this trauma.

Pierre Peron, Virunga National Park communications officer

WEDNESDAY 12 NOVEMBER - BENJAMIN RETURNS

A ranger arrived at the refugee camp in Goma this morning with a horrific story to tell.

Benjamin Mujinya
Benjamin Mujinya was helpless to prevent the tragedy

Benjamin Mujinya is a Ranger from the Kalengera Patrol Post, which is on the road between Rumangabo and Rutshuru.

When the major hostilities started on November 2nd, Kalengera experienced a two-day battle with sustained gunfire and mortars.

Benjamin and other rangers were forced to flee into the forest nearby.

By November 4th, the Congolese soldiers had fled and rebels took over the town.

Benjamin was worried about his family - he cautiously approached his village and hid in a bush near his house. To his horror he saw a group of rebels approach.

As he watched on, the rebels pulled out his father Etienne Mujinya and shot him dead. Benjamin then ran away back into the forest in fear for his life.

Benjamin
Mr Mujinya is now living in one of the Goma refugee camps

By the next day, the rebels had left the village, so he returned. He found the body of his father along with 20 other men who had been executed.

It was clear that as a man of fighting age, as well as an agent of the Congolese Government, Benjamin was in grave danger.

He had to put aside any impulse to grieve for his father. He asked some of his neighbours to bury him and left for the long walk through the forest to Goma.

Benjamin has now joined the ranks of the 250,000 refugees living in and around Goma who have been displaced by the last month's hostilities.

Pierre Peron, Virunga National Park communications officer

TUESDAY 11 NOVEMBER - LIFE IN RANGERS' REFUGEE CAMP

Today we spent most of the day organising our weekly distribution of food at our refugee camp in Goma, which currently houses more than 240 rangers and their families.

Some of the camp's residents (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Conditions in the camp for rangers and their family are too crowded

All in all, about 1,000 people are dependent upon us for shelter, food, water, and medical care.

We have had an amazing response from people around the world who are donating through our blog.

Most donations are small - $10 here, $30 dollars there - but overall, we have received $30,000 since the crisis began.

We are all really overwhelmed by these gestures and would like to thank everyone for their generosity. However, we will still need more if the current situation persists.

As in many other refugee camps around Goma, we had several cases of cholera last week. Thankfully, we have been able to keep it under control and it has not developed into an outbreak.

Two boys enjoying a drink of water (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Park officials have provided water, shelter and food to the rangers' families

Our field medic Joel has been kept busy by the usual array of cases, such as the son of a ranger who cut open his head on a rock while playing football.

With rangers and their families continuing to arrive, we have run out of space at our current location.

We have therefore decided to move all the families to a refugee camp in Bulengo, which is located on the outskirts of Goma.

The camp is run by the UN, and our families will be integrated with thousands of other who have fled the fighting over the past few weeks.

Pierre Peron, Virunga National Park communications officer

MONDAY 10 NOVEMBER - FAMILIES IN DANGER
Diddy and Justine (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Diddy and wife Justine in happier times before the conflict reached their home
Our families have been much affected by last week's fighting in Rutshuru and Kiwanja.

Innocent's parents in Rutshuru had to flee into the forest, where they spent several days hiding from CNDP rebels and the Congolese army.

On Sunday, they were able to go back to the house to find it looted; everything was gone.

Diddy's family in Kiwanja had to flee the battles between the CNDP rebels and the Mai-Mai militia.

His wife and six children escaped on foot and spent three days walking with other refugees towards the north.

Diddy's three youngest children (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Diddy's three youngest children, who had to walk for days to reach safety

They walked in the pouring rain without food and had to spend the night on the side of the road.

At the weekend, they finally made it to safety in the town of Nyamilima.

Diddy's grandmother was too frail to walk, so his sister carried her two miles to a nearby UN compound, where people were hoping to get some protection from armed bandits.

Diddy has also found a way to send them some money, which is not easy in a world without banks and cashpoints.

Ranger Augustin Kambale (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Ranger Augustin Kambale's family were safe but scared

He bought phone credits on his mobile which he transferred to his wife's phone. She can sell the credits to make some money to feed the family.

Our friend and fellow ranger Augustin Kambale's family was also in Kiwanja.

He took a motorcycle and bravely rode up through the front at Kibati and through rebel-held territory.

He made it to Kiwanja to find his family holed up at home, scared but OK.

Others were not so lucky. When Augustin passed through Mabunga near Kiwanja, he saw a house with the bodies of 10 men on the floor.

They had been stabbed to death, possibly by bayonet. Whoever killed them did not want to waste their bullets.

Pierre Peron, Virunga National Park communications officer

FRIDAY 07 NOVEMBER - LUCKY ESCAPE
Yesterday afternoon, one of our rangers, Semivumbi Nzariturande, arrived at our office in Goma completely exhausted after having escaped from the fighting north of Goma.
Gorilla ranger Semivumbi Nzariturande (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Semivumbi had a lucky escape after being captured by militia forces

On Tuesday, Semivumbi and 42 other rangers were at the Kabaraza Park Station when rogue army soldiers came to the station, looting their homes and stealing their equipment. The rangers fled to the town of Kiwanja, where their families lived.

And on Wednesday, the Pareco Mai-Mai militia arrived in Kiwanja and battled with the CNDP rebels, who had taken the town the day before.

Semivumbi spent the whole day lying on the floor with his family in their home. They barricaded their door and could hear gunfire just outside in their street.

In the late afternoon their door was broken down by CNDP rebels. They were arresting any young men who they believed might be fighting alongside the Mai-Mai.

Gorilla ranger Semivumbi Nzariturande and his son (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Semivumbi and his son are awaiting news about the rest of their family

Semivumbi and his son were taken along with eight of their neighbours.

The rebels forced them to carry boxes of ammunition, and they saw dead bodies lying in the streets of town.

Semivumbi then had a stroke of luck. One of the captured men alongside him was a lorry driver, whose vehicle had been commandeered.

Amazingly one of the rebels recognised the driver whom he had known years before. They decided to let him go and gave his lorry back to him as well.

The driver told the rebels that Semivumbi and his son were not Mai-Mai, so they were released too. Together they got in the lorry and drove south.

They arrived last night at the front between the CNDP and the Congolese army in Kibati.

They were able to bribe their way through and arrived in Goma the next morning, shaken up and hungry, but OK.

They are now at our refugee camp in Goma and waiting for news from their family, who they think escaped Kiwanja on foot.
Pierre Peron, Virunga National Park communications officer

THURSDAY 06 NOVEMBER - DANGER REMAINS
There were 53 rangers at our park headquarters in Rumangabo when the rebels attacked last week.
A ranger reunited with his family (Image: Gorilla.cd)
The rangers have been returned, but the threats remain

Since then it has been a very confusing time and we have been trying to find the rangers who went missing in the sudden evacuation.

Some rangers fled on foot towards the north to the towns of Kiwanja and Rutshuru. Some went south towards Goma, walking for up to five days with no food, water or shelter.

Another group fled into the forest for three days until the fighting stopped and went back to Rumangabo to find the rebels still in control of the park station.

We are still unsure as to the whereabouts of some rangers. Most of their mobile phones have run out of batteries and are still on the move, so it is very difficult to get in touch with them.

Ranger on a bicycle (Image: Gorilla.cd)
One "missing" ranger arrived days later on a bicycle

Five more arrived yesterday at our refugee camp in Goma and we are expecting two more today.

The good news is that we are pretty sure that no rangers were killed during the hostilities. The bad news is that the ones in Rumangabo are still vulnerable to the rebels and that further up north the situation is deteriorating.

Yesterday in Kiwanja, the Mai-Mai militia attacked the CNDP rebels, resulting in properties being looted.

Diddy's family lives in Kiwanja; his wife and children had to flee and are now hiding in the forest.

We are very worried for them and we are trying to figure out whether they can now return or if we need to organize their evacuation.

There is an international summit in Nairobi on Friday with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the presidents of DR Congo and Rwanda.

We hope they can find a solution to stop this mess.

Pierre Peron, Virunga National Park communications officer

MONDAY 03 NOVEMBER - CHAOS IN GOMA
Since our last post, Virunga National Park has been dominated by conflict, chaos and violence.
Ranger being carried from a vehicle (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Some rangers returned after walking for four days without food or drink

The rebels seized Virunga's headquarters at Rumangabo on Sunday 26 October, forcing 53 rangers to flee in all directions.

Fighting between the army and the rebels was intense, until the army pulled back. In the end, it was only the intervention of UN forces that protected the city of Goma, in which we were holed up with our families and thousands of other civilians.

News of the fighting in our country has travelled far and wide across the globe and we have had much support on our blog.

There are now nearly 1,000 rangers and their families in a makeshift camp in Goma. Some rangers walked for up to four days to reach Goma from Rumangabo, with no food or water.

They arrived with blisters on their hands and feet, and sores in their throats from dehydration.

People help an injured ranger from a car (Image: Gorilla.cd)
It's been an anxious wait for news about the missing rangers

One ranger was abducted by the military and forced to carry their equipment. When he protested he was whipped and beaten.

When finally he managed to escape, he staggered to Goma. He is now reunited with his family and recovering.

So not only is the Gorilla Sector now out of our control but also vast swathes of the park in the south.

We await a political solution as negotiations are underway and the international community is involved.

This does not diminish our sense of frustration. How are the gorillas? What about our HQ? What about all the other animals that were starting to return to the confines of Virunga?

We are determined to get back into the park and do our job. We want to protect the flora and fauna of Africa's greatest park.

FRIDAY 24 OCTOBER - UNCERTAIN TIMES
We continue to struggle with the aftermath of the fighting earlier this month.

We are trying to work out whether it is possible to organise the return of the rangers' families to Rumangabo.

However, they are still very scared for their security there, so we have decided to delay their return by a few days.

Woman and child (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Security concerns have prevented the rangers' families returning home

In Rumangabo itself the situation is relatively calm, although we have heard quite disturbing reports about troop movements near the Rwandan border.

Fifty-three rangers are holding the fort and have successfully managed to hold out against armed bandits that have tried to pillage the station on several occasions since the fighting started.

It's very challenging for the rangers to work with such uncertainty. They have been without their families for two weeks now, and are low on rations.

Ugandan kob crossing the road (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Despite the turmoil, Ugandan kob seem to be thriving in the park

We have sent in another supply today, which will keep them going for a while. We don't know if the fighting will resume tomorrow, or if we can hope for some more peace.

Nobody really seems to know, but several sources have indicated that the CNDP rebels are looking to take the Rumangabo military base again, only to stay permanently this time.

On a more cheerful note, Innocent was recently driving on the road through Rwindi in the central sector of the park and had to stop because the road was blocked by a large herd of antelope.

They were a species known as Ugandan kob, which we now see more and more on the savannah plains just south of Lake Edward.

It was great to see the kob in their hundreds despite the heavy poaching the park has experienced in the last few years.

It is amazing to see that some of our wildlife is flourishing despite all the turmoil.

FRIDAY 17 OCTOBER - FLEEING THE FIGHTING
Temporary camp for rangers' families
The fighting forced the rangers' families to flee their homes
The fighting arrived on our doorstep last week. Laurent Nkunda's CNDP rebels attacked the military base at Rumangabo, which is only a couple kilometres from our park headquarters.

The gunshots and mortar explosions started at 0600 and continued all day.

The Congolese army brought tanks and attack helicopters to fire on the rebels. Local villagers started fleeing and arrived at our station looking for safety.

Shortly after, the rebels took over the military base and it all went quiet. We were very concerned that either the rebels or the army would start streaming into our station, but thankfully that didn't happen.

There was sporadic gunfire late into the night, and unfortunately a stray bullet hit a girl, the daughter of a ranger.

Amazingly the bullet went in and out of the right side of her chest and she is OK. A couple centimeters to the left and she would have died.

Young children at the temporary camp (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Many of the children have only known a time of unrest

The next day we decided to move all the rangers' families to safety.

We have set up a refugee camp in the western outskirts of Goma to host the 600 wives and children.

A core group of rangers have stayed behind in Rumangabo to hold the fort and protect the equipment.

Things have calmed down a bit, but the area around Rumangabo is swamped with armed men, intent on pillaging the most vulnerable.

A group of armed men came to the station to break into the main building. The rangers fired in the air to scare them away. The bandits fired back in all directions.

We later heard that they hit one of their own, killing him.

The families are now still in the camp in Goma and we are doing our best to deal with what is a difficult humanitarian situation.

Thankfully we are getting help from various NGOs that are more experienced in dealing with displaced people.

All we can do is wait until it is safe enough for them to go back home.

FRIDAY 3 OCTOBER - ANOTHER ELEPHANT KILLED
Elephant carcass (Image: Gorilla.cd)
Innocent (far right) looks at the carcass of the elephant
On Monday we got a phone call from the rangers at our patrol post in Vitshumbi (on the southern shores of Lake Edward) informing us that an elephant had been killed nearby.

The next day we drove from our headquarters in Rumangabo to the patrol post to take a look. It appeared that the elephant had been killed by the FDLR rebels that roam this area of the park.

We found the carcass about 6km (four miles) east of Vitshumbi. The tusks had been taken and animal scavengers had eaten most of the meat already.

The elephant was quite young, only about eight years old, so the tusks would not have weighed more than 2-3kg. There were three bullet holes in its skull.

This latest incident has taken the number of elephants killed in the park since March to at least 25.

As long as there is demand for ivory in countries like China, the elephants of Virunga will continue to suffer. We will of course continue to do our best to stop the massacre.

Diddy blogging (Image: Gorilla.cd)
The new website will allow readers to interactive with the rangers

On a brighter note, we were very excited this week by launch of the official website for Virunga National Park.

It is part of a new initiative to generate support for the park and the rangers who risk their lives every day to protect its wildlife.

The website is designed to be interactive with social networking, so we hope that people across the world will join up and mobilize to help us save the mountain gorillas of Congo.

FRIDAY 26 SEPTEMBER - HEAVY FIGHTING
On Wednesday we were woken at 0600 by the sound of gunfire and distant heavy artillery.
Mikeno volcano (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Rebels and the army exchanged fire on the slopes of Mikeno volcano

It was coming from an area near Bukima, which is in the Gorilla Sector, and from above Rugari; in other words, on the slopes of the Mikeno volcano where the gorillas live.

This is also the region where the Laurent Nkunda's CNDP rebels are battling the Congolese government troops.

The army was firing heavy artillery from their positions in Rumangabo and Rugari.

Soldiers on foot were exchanging long bursts of AK-47 fire with rebels in the hills above them.

The fighting continued on and off all day; for some reason, it seemed like it restarted whenever it started to rain.

Army tanks (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The army's heavy artillery arrived on the slopes of Mikeno

From the Rumangabo ranger station, we also saw four tanks and a truck full of soldiers driving down the main road towards the fighting.

A couple hours later, Innocent and a couple other rangers left Rumangabo to go back to Goma.

On the way, we saw the tanks parked on the side of the road at Rugari, from where they were firing up the slopes of the hill towards the rebel positions.

On the road there were also a lot of weary soldiers who were taking a break from fighting on the front.

FDLR charcoal makers have been taking advantage of the situation.

There was very little traffic on the road, so at the point near Kibumba where the road marks the border of the park, we saw several groups of FDLR men and their porters carrying bags of charcoal out of the forest.

Things have now calmed down and we haven't heard any fighting at all since the exchanges of fire earlier in the week.

It seems that the Congolese army was able to push back the CNDP rebels up the hills and away from the road at Rugari.

The tanks are not there anymore either, which is hopefully a good sign.

FRIDAY 12 SEPTEMBER - FAMILIES MOVED TO SAFETY

People fleeing the fighting (Image: WildlifeDirect)

Hostilities have continued to escalate on the outskirts of Virunga National Park.

This week the fighting was especially intense in Kibirizi, a town just south of the Rwindi Ranger Station.

Just as in the area near the Gorilla Sector, the battle is between the Congolese army and Laurent Nkunda's rebels.

The government troops have taken heavy losses and the front is getting closer and closer to Rwindi.

As a consequence, park director Emmanuel de Merode took the decision to evacuate the families of the Rangers in Rwindi.

A girl fleeing the fighting (Image: WildlifeDirect)
It has been a traumatic time for the families' young children

So, on Wednesday we drove up there with a truck to help transport them to safety.

When we arrived, we found the 220 wives and children huddled under some trees next to the UN peacekeepers' (Monuc) camp, where they felt more secure.

They had spent the night there out in the open and hadn't eaten in 24 hours. The children were especially exhausted and scared.

UN helicopters were flying overhead and we saw many Congolese soldiers arriving by foot. They had all fled Kibirizi, which by then had been taken over by Laurent Nkunda's rebels.

The families took whatever possessions they could carry and loaded them up onto the truck.

It took four round trips to take them to the relative safety of the towns of Kanyabayonga and Kiwanja.

The Rangers took the brave decision to stay at the station to hold the fort.

It was terrible to see the families in such awful conditions. The Rangers are the custodians of Africa's greatest national park and they are putting their lives on the line.

They and their families deserve a lot better.

FRIDAY 5 SEPTEMBER - THE BIG MOVE
Soldiers (Wildlife Direct)
This was a gig operation

On Monday, we started an operation to help move over 1,000 Congolese soldiers from the Central Sector of Virunga National Park.

They were with their families - about 6,000 people in total - and moved them to an area outside of the park for good.

This happened following successful talks between Army General Vainqueur Mayala and Park Director Emmanuel de Merode.

The whole operation required incredible logistics as it really was like moving an entire town.

It took three days and cost $10,000 - mainly for trucks and fuel.

WWF paid for the operation, at the request of Emmanuel and the Rangers.

This is a significant development for Virunga and its flora and fauna. Any human presence is detrimental to the conservation of Virunga, so this move by the army is a very positive step in the right direction.

Truck (Wildlife Direct)
The conservation group WWF paid the moving costs

The soldiers were primarily based in Rwindi, which is about 130km north/north-west of Goma, and Vitshumbi, on the southern shores of Lake Edward.

This was for strategic purposes - to defend the main road going north from Goma and to prevent attacks from the Mai Mai and FDLR rebels.

Most soldiers have now moved west of the park to Kanyabayonga.

Bear in mind that the Gorilla Sector, occupied by rebels loyal to dissident General Laurent Nkunda, is about 80km away from where these soldiers were.

The situation in the Gorilla Sector remains volatile - in the last couple days, we have been able to hear mortars and gunfire from our Rumangabo Station.

MONDAY 1 SEPTEMBER - SOUNDS OF WAR

Heavy fighting broke out on Thursday between Laurent Nkunda's rebels and the army around the Gorilla Sector, specifically near the patrol post of Bukima and going down toward Rumangabo park station.

The situation had been calm for some months, but all this has just changed.

From Rumangabo we could hear the mortars being fired not so far away and reverberating through the hills.

Tank on road
Fighting has come closer to the gorilla sector in recent days

It is not clear who initially attacked whom - whether the rebels or the army attacked first. But one thing is for sure; the army is sending in major reinforcements.

We later left Rumangabo heading toward Goma, and came across a convoy of military vehicles carrying all kinds of heavy weaponry and soldiers.

Also in the convoy were tanks and armoured vehicles.

There are now rumours that following the fighting, the army may have re-taken control of the Bukima Patrol Post, which could potentially be positive in terms of access for the rangers.

Map

The people around the area of the fighting are waiting expectantly. They have seen all of this many, many times before, and simply do not have anywhere else to go.

Some refugees (IDPs) who are from near Bukima, but are in temporary shelter at Rumangabo, have gone up there to see what is going on.

They aren't back yet though, so we are still waiting to hear on the ground. As usual during conflict, confusion prevails.

There is one thing for certain though. If we can hear the bombing and mortars, so can the gorillas.

If human populations around this area feel threatened, so do the gorillas.

WEDNESDAY 20 AUGUST - 'GORILLA' CONFISCATED
Young chimpanzee (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The baby gorilla for sale turned out to be a young chimpanzee

We got a tip-off last Thursday that someone in Goma was trying to sell a baby gorilla.

We decided to set up a sting operation, where we would pose as wildlife dealers interested in buying the gorilla.

The local authorities gave us the go-ahead, so a team of rangers from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature was put on standby to make any arrests.

We arranged with a local contact to meet the men involved; we were introduced to them and they told us that they were acting as middle men for the owner of a baby mountain gorilla, which was being kept elsewhere in Goma.

After several hours of negotiating and discussions, the men took us to the house where the animal was being held.

Young chimpanzee (Image: WildlifeDirect)
The sellers were arrested, while the chimp was taken to a sanctuary

We were led to a small room in the house, where a man opened a basket revealing a baby chimpanzee.

Clearly the men did not know the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee. The chimp had been in that basket for three months, since it had been taken from its home in the Virunga National Park.

We arrested the three middle men and a soldier who were at the house. The chimp was confiscated and will be sent to a sanctuary.

It has now emerged that the man who owned the house is a Major in the Congolese army. It was not a surprise that Major "X" (we can't name him yet as a result of legal reasons) was involved in the trade of baby chimps.

He has been implicated in poaching incidents before; more importantly, there is strong evidence that he is a ring-leader in the illegal charcoal trade.

We hope that the judicial proceedings following this operation will finally bring Major X to justice. This would represent a massive breakthrough in our efforts to protect the gorilla sector.

FRIDAY 8 AUGUST - GOOD NEWS AT LAST

Emmanuel and Innocent with massacred gorilla (Image: WildlifeDirect)
Emmanuel (left) with Innocent and one of the massacred gorillas in July 2007
Big news for us this week; our friend and colleague Emmanuel de Merode has been appointed as the new head of Virunga National Park by the Congolese government.

Emmanuel was the former director of WildlifeDirect, the NGO that has helped raise funds for our work through our online blogs.

He is very experienced here in Virunga, and is well respected by the international community and the local Congolese alike.

We are absolutely thrilled with this development and we are looking forward to seeing Virunga move forward under his leadership.

With Emmanuel at the helm, it is hoped that we can make inroads into stabilising the park and regaining access to the Gorilla Sector, which is currently controlled by Laurent Nkunda's rebels.

At the end of the day, it will only be once peace returns to the area that we rangers will be able to get back to the job of monitoring and protecting the mountain gorillas. We reluctantly have become a paramilitary force, but we would much prefer to drop our weapons and simply return to being wildlife rangers.

Another challenge Emmanuel will have to tackle is the charcoal trade that is continuing to be a threat to the forests of Virunga.

Last month alone, we confiscated 702 bags of illegal charcoal at our roadblock at Kibati.

After being sworn in by the Military Tribunal in Goma, Emmanuel will step into the role on 13 August, taking command of the 680 rangers serving within the park.

We all wish him the best of luck.


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 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 17 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
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Gorilla diary: Nov 2007 - Jan 2008
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The world of mountain gorillas
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Q&A: Gorilla protection diary
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New arrival for DR Congo gorillas
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Missing DR Congo gorillas 'dead'
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Concern over gorilla 'executions'
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