How DR Congo War Affects Virunga Mountain Gorillas

How DR Congo War Affects Virunga Mountain Gorillas

With the fighting in eastern Congo, I fear our gorillas in general are being put at risk.  These animals have those forests as their only home yet rebels invade them and launch wars against their governments from forests.

Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to a world-famous population of mountain gorillas but has been hit by rising instability and violence in the country.

At least 12 rangers have been killed in clashes with militia and smugglers in Virunga in the last 10 months, one of the bloodiest periods in the park’s history.

More than 180 rangers have been killed in Virunga over the last 20 years, making the park one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world. Six died in an ambush in April. The loss of life was the worst in a single incident in the park’s history.

Virunga is located in the DRC’s North Kivu province, and covers nearly 8,000 square miles. As well as being home to one of the world’s largest populations of the critically endangered mountain gorillas, it has hundreds of other rare species.

There are slightly over 800 mountain gorillas left in the Virunga Massif which includes Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Virunga subpopulation ranges across the Virunga Massif, which is a 440km² network of protected areas across the borders of Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park), Uganda (Mgahinga National Park) and the DRC (Virunga National Park).

As their name implies, mountain gorillas live in forests high in the mountains, at elevations of 2,000 to 4,000 meters. They have thicker and denser hair compared to other great apes, which helps them survive in a habitat where temperatures often drop below freezing. But as humans have moved more and more into their territory, the gorillas have been pushed farther up into the mountains for longer periods, forcing them to endure dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions.

What might have been a bleak outlook for the subspecies just a couple of decades ago has brightened in recent years due to conservation efforts. Despite ongoing civil conflict, poaching and human encroachment, both mountain gorilla populations have increased in numbers:

  • The 2010 Virunga Massif census recorded a total of 480 individuals, which represents a 26.3% increase from the previous census of 2003. The next Virunga census will be conducted in 2015
  • The 2011 Bwindi census recorded a minimum of 400 individuals, up from 302 in 2006.

I urge the fighters to be mindful of the rightful inhabitants of those forests and spare the animals’ lives.

We cannot afford to lose our precious gorillas at the hands of human conflicts they know nothing about.

The poachers have done enough damage that we cannot afford having more animals dieing at the hands of political insurgents.

Risks to Virunga Mountain Gorilla Conservation

1. Protracted local conflicts: waves of refugees have settled in the region around the Virunga National Park, which is home to more than half of the mountain gorilla population, leading to poaching and destruction of gorilla habitat.

2. Habitat loss: as humans have moved into areas near the habitat of mountain gorillas, they have cleared land for agriculture and livestock. Even land within protected areas is not safe from clearing—in 2004, for example, illegal settlers cleared 3,700 acres of gorilla forest in Virunga National Park.

3. Diseases: Gorillas that come into contact with humans can be vulnerable to human diseases, which gorillas experience in more severe forms.

4. Charcoal making: Inside gorilla habitat in Virunga National Park, people harvest charcoal for use as a fuel source in cooking and heating. The charcoal production —an illegal, multi-million dollar industry —has negatively impacted the gorilla habitat.

5. Poaching: there is little to no direct targeting of mountain gorillas for bushmeat or pet trade, but they can be caught and harmed by snares set for other animals.

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