When NEWSWEEK reported on the murder of mountain gorillas in Congo, the identity of the killers was a mystery, with speculation centering on charcoal smugglers who intended to send a message to Congo authorities not to mess with them. Now the situation has turned even more sinister.
Conservation sources at World Wildlife Fund and elsewhere tell me that at around 3 a.m. local time on Sept. 3, two ranger outposts in Virunga National Park, site of this summer's gorilla killings, were attacked by troops comprised of FARDC (Forces Armées de la Republic Democratic du Congo) and of a rebel faction. The attackers seized the guns and communication equipment of rangers employed by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN); no one was injured. The attacks came at two of sites most visited by tourists, called Mikeno and Jomba. In an attack the following day, at the Kabaraza ranger station in the center of Virunga, one ranger was killed and the station looted.
The surviving rangers fled to park headquarters. That leaves none in park sectors that are home to a number of gorilla families, including the 12-member Mapuwa family; three lone silverbacks (Ruzirabwoba, Pilipili and Mareru), the four-member Lulengo family and the five-member Rugendo family, survivors of the group targeted in the June killings. There are now no patrols taking place in the Park, and ICCN says it has lost control of Virunga.
That could pose a real risk to the gorillas, especially the five remaining members of the Rugendo group, which before the rebel attacks were being monitored daily. They are spending much of their time outside the park in agricultural fields, which is likely to increase conflicts with the neighboring communities.