In the midst of all the fighting going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo (background info on the conflict), in addition to all of the ordinary people being displaced by fighting, a further tragedy is taking place: The rangers of Virunga National Park, home to about 200 endangered mountain gorillas, were driven from park headquarters on October 26 by the forces of Laurent Nkunda and, according to their blog, "forced to flee into the forest for their lives." With the park rangers displaced and fierce fighting continuing, the future of the gorilla population is in question.
More on the plight of the Virunga park rangers and the mountain gorillas:
While I normally wouldn't just excerpt such large sections of another site, I think it's important to get a first hand account of the situation. From the official Virunga park blog on the ranger rescue operation and the aftermath:
October 28: Ranger Rescue Operation
The rescue operation yesterday was a success in that we were able to rescue the 12 Rangers with whom we had made contact. Eddy and I rode the motorbike about 15km north of Goma and then walked about 5km into the forest and there they were, on top of a hill.
They were extremely happy and relieved to see us - and very thirsty, hungry and tired.
Bareke, my assistant, has a long story to tell of the 54 hour ordeal, so I will give you the bare facts.
The Rangers started off on Sunday at 9am as a group of 14 - and also with 4 members of the military who were also fleeing the rebels. They walked through the park, often trying to emerge onto the road, but heard many bombs and mortars and so had to go back into the forest. With no water they tried licking rocks to quench their thirst, and also tried sucking up the moisture from the mud, by putting a piece of clothing between their mouth and the moist mud.
Of the 14 who set off, 1 Ranger - Sebagenzi - gave up and said he was too tired and the others simply did not have the strength to carry him. Another Ranger - Bitege - was abducted by a group of military, who wanted to use him as a porter.
So of the 53 Rangers who were at Rumangabo when the HQ was attacked 12 have made it to Goma and are in the camp with their families. (Ranger operation a success, but 2 did not make it)
October 29: Confusion & Chaos in Goma
The situation is degrading fast.Â There has been a lot of shooting in town until about 40 minutes ago.Â Since then, there is silence.Â You could hear a pin drop.Â Rumours are rife, but there are some confirmed reports of CNDP rebels on the outskirts of town.Â MONUC is evacuating their staff to Rwanda.
Confusion is probably the only way to describe the situation.Â There is a lot of shooting in town, with some heavy weapons further away.Â Everyone is staying at home.Â There has been some looting, mainly armed men stealing cars and motorbikes. Laurent Nkunda made a statement on television and radio announcing a unilateral cease-fire, which is encouraging, but unfortunately does not translate into a peaceful evening.
We've suffered a barrage of rumours including the invasion of the Rwandan army, Angolan mercenaries coming in from the west, just about everything, none of which is terribly helpful.Â I keep in regular touch with the team as the cellphone network is still working well.Â They are all in good spirits.
Samantha is with Eddy and William, and they will be spending an uncomfortable night in the car, as they are at the UN World Food Programme Offices.Â They are pretty safe there.Â Delphin, our para-medic who is on night duty for the rangers' families, is in a bit of trouble as the military are bringing him many wounded soldiers.Â He is obliged to treat them.Â Families at the camp are well, but quite stressed by the shooting.Â For them, the ordeal continues.
There is still a Congolese military presence in town and for the time being, it seems that the town is not in rebel hands, but I can't say that with any certainty.Â No doubt we will know in the morning.Â For now, I will do some more work, and then try to catch some sleep.Â I'll write to you in the morning.Â Also, for those who asked, Drs Jacques and Eddy are watching over the orphaned gorillas.Â Getting them out of the country at this stage is out of the question as it would put them at even greater risk. (Continuing uncertainty in Goma)
October 30: Intense Fighting Continues
Fighting was very intense yesterday, and we have struggled to make significant progress in bringing our staff to safety.Â 14 rangers who made it to Goma are resting at the camp with their families.Â The two that were badly dehydrated are now under observation at the local health centre.Â It's an incredible achievement on their part to have made it.
It a huge relief for us that some of our rangers are beginning to trickle back to relative safety in Goma, but we remain deeply concerned for those that have been left behind.Â They stayed in Rumangabo to protect the station.Â Their lives are at risk because they are in a conflict zone and have no food or medical supplies.Â Those that escaped into the forest are in even greater danger as they have no water and are vulnerable to the militia groups that are dispersed throughout that area.
We are trying to put pressure on the warring parties to ensure their safety, establish their whereabouts, and to try to bring them supplies, but the intensity of the conflict since Sunday morning is a huge challenge.
We are very concerned that the missing rangers do not remain anonymous, and that we keep up the rescue efforts as best we can.Â So we have listed them below with the latest information.Â We will post their names and update the information until they are found.Â (Rescue efforts hampered by intense fighting throughout the Province)
What You Can Do
First of all you can follow the plight of the rangers, learn more about the work they are doing in the national park at Gorilla.cd (the offical park website) , and spread the word.
If you're in a financial position to do so, in order to provide food and medical supplies for the rangers and their families, the Virunga park rangers are asking for donations.
Meet Some of the Rangers
More on the Fighting In and Around Virunga
Rebels Seize Congo Gorilla Park; Hope Dim For Apes (National Geographic)
Thousands Flee Fighting as Congo Rebels Seize Gorilla Park(CNN)
Gorillas, Conservation, Endangered Species
Keeping Gorillas in Our Midst
"Planet of the Apes" Discovered in Republic of Congo
25 Most Endangered Primate Species Could "Fit Into Single Football Stadium"