One of the first Smithsonian articles I worked on was last year’s Guerrillas in Their Midst, about the endangered mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Congo. Though the animals in Rwanda appeared to be doing well and supporting a thriving tourism business, the story in Virunga National Park in Congo was not so pleasant.
In July 2007, four members of the Rugendo gorilla family, which had been visited by our reporter, were killed. A total of ten gorillas were killed that year in the park. Then in January, we reported that the rangers who protected the park had been barred from accessing the gorillas because of the conflict between the Congolese army and rebel forces led by ex-general Laurent Nkunda. Of course, the rangers weren’t the only ones affected by the fighting; 800,000 people were forced from their homes, according to the United Nations.
Fighting flared again in Congo in recent weeks, displacing another 200,000 people. Virunga’s park rangers, who had been able to return to some of the park in recent months, were forced to flee into the forests when their headquarters were overtaken by rebel troops.
But now some promising news: 120 rangers returned to the park on Friday after the chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, negotiated their safe return. As he told the Environmental News Service, “Rangers are neutral in this conflict, and it is right that they should be allowed to do their job.”
Though the rangers now plan to start a long-neglected survey of the park’s gorilla population, cleaning up will have to be a priority. Their facilities have been abandoned for the last 14 months and much of their supplies and equipment were stolen in the conflict. It may be a long while until we know how many of the gorillas survived.