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(Cheryl Carlin)

Guerrillas in Their Midst

Face to face with Congo's imperiled mountain gorillas

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(Continued from page 4)

The Congo mountain gorillas' future depends largely on the militias. At U.N. peacekeeping troops' headquarters in Goma, Brigadier General Behl tells me why a quick resolution of the conflict is unlikely. "It's a very difficult task for the [Congo] government," he says, frowning. "It's a long way before they can bring all these groups back into the mainstream."

Paulin Ngobobo, the senior warden of Virunga National Park's southern sector, says that even though President Kabila has promised to protect the mountain gorillas, "after two civil wars, our country is very poor, and we need outside support to save them." WildlifeDirect, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and other conservation organizations are helping the park financially, he says, but much more needs to be done to combat the military threat.

Leaving Ruhengeri, I take a last look at the Virunga Mountains, shimmering like blue glass in the misty air. On the other side of those steep slopes, Humba, Rugendo and their families are playing, mating, caring for their young or sleeping off a hefty snack. How long their serenity continues depends on the courage of the people who protect them, the goodwill of the world to help and the willingness of rebel militias and army troops to leave them alone.

The shocking news came at the end of July. Four mountain gorillas in Congo had been killed by unknown assailants, for reasons unknown. As details trickled out, I learned that the dead were among the mountain gorillas I had visited: Rugendo and three females from his group, Neeza, Mburanumwe and Safari. In August, the remains of the group's last adult female were found; her infant is presumed dead. It was the worst massacre of mountain gorillas in more than 25 years. Rangers tracked down six survivors, including Noel, Mukunda and Kongomani, who was caring for Safari's infant. MGVP vets are now caring for the youngster in Goma.

Rugendo had what I perceived to be a gentle nature, allowing me to approach close to him while he ate leaves and as his offspring played nearby. He was so trusting of humans that he even fell asleep in front of me. The villagers and rangers who knew Rugendo obviously respected him. About 70 villagers carried the mountain gorillas' massive bodies from the forest to bury them near the Bukima patrol post.

Paul Raffaele has written about bonobos, wild dogs, hippos, pirates, cannibals and extreme polo for Smithsonian.

 

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