Despite of the ongoing civil war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the government authorities and M23 rebel commanders have authorized the park’s rangers to search for the missing gorilla families in rebel-held territory in the Mountain Gorilla Sector of Congo’s Virunga National Park. On Tuesday 24 July, a team of 45 rangers will begin a multi-day operation to find and monitor the condition of six mountain gorilla families, some which have not been seen for over 10 weeks.
Rangers are required to provide constant protection for the Mountain Gorillas but were forced to evacuate the Gorilla Sector as a result of the intense fighting between the Congolese army and the rebel group on 8 May 2012. Extensive use of heavy machine guns, mortars and combat helicopters blocked all efforts to monitor and protect gorilla families that make their home in the surrounding forests.
The Virunga National Park’s director Emmanuel de Merode, stated, “We are delighted and relieved that all sides in the conflict have recognized the need to protect Congo’s only mountain gorillas, and that once again this country has shown a deep commitment to nature conservation despite the exceedingly difficult political challenges of the moment.”
Rangers will work with trackers from the local community in seven teams of six people. After locating the gorilla families, the park’s gorilla monitoring teams will individually identify each member of the family. Their health status will also be assessed as mountain gorillas are particularly vulnerable to disease. Once the initial census is completed, ranger teams will continue to patrol the park to remove all snares and protect the gorillas from poachers. The park rangers are the only Congolese government security officers currently operating in rebel-held territory.
Virunga National Park’s gorilla families live in the mountainous forests of the Virunga Massif. The park is home to approximately 200 mountain gorillas, 25% of the total remaining in the world.
The park closed all tourist visits to the gorillas, chimpanzees, and volcanoes on 1 April when fighting began within the park. Tourist attractions will remain closed until the security situation is stable.
The Congolese Park Authorities, ICCN, expect to release the results of the census of the 6 gorilla families in the second week of August 2012. This release will include links to download high
resolution images and 3-5 minute Virunga National Park video package of highlights from of the expedition.