Virunga Conflict Escalates, Gorillas at Risk
The ongoing conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has recently intensified. As a result more than 50 Congolese park rangers fled to safety from Virunga National Park and more than one million people have been displaced. The rebels have advanced to just outside of Goma â€“ the regional capital â€“ threatening the stability of the entire country.
While previous fighting had taken place inside some sectors of Virunga National Park, and rebel control of the park included all of the habitats where mountain gorillas are found â€“ this is the first time that the parkâ€™s headquarters have been taken over and occupied by the troops. More than half of the worldâ€™s 700 remaining mountain gorillas live inside the park, along with hundreds of bird and mammal species. Because rangers are unable to conduct patrols, the status of the parkâ€™s gorillas is unknown.
â€œArmed conflicts are disastrous on many levels, including their impact on the environment. WWF urges all involved to remember that a healthy Virunga National Park is vital to its wildlife and the local community â€“ especially after the conflict when tourism can help speed the regionâ€™s recovery,â€ says Dr. Richard Carroll, managing director of WWFâ€™s Congo Basin program.
The unfolding humanitarian crisis is another threat to Virunga National Park. The displaced people urgently need basic supplies to survive â€“ especially firewood to cook meals and heat their temporary homes. WWF is partnering with the United Nations and other organizations to provide firewood from sustainable sources to alleviate pressure on Virunga National Parkâ€™s forests. The park has yet to recover from the period during 1994-95, when hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Rwanda arrived in the region, with no alternatives but to destroy large sections of the parkâ€™s forests. Also, without regular patrols by the parkâ€™s rangers, bushmeat hunting and the illegal charcoal trade could thrive in the chaos.
As the oldest and most biodiverse national park in Africa, Virungaâ€™s long-term success is vital to the wildlife and people that depend on its natural resources. In times of peace, Virunga National Park brings over $3 million a year from ecotourism â€“ mostly from visits to mountain gorillas. The National Park is also an important source of food for local communities, with over 20,000 fishermen providing up to 15,000 tons of fish each year.
WWFâ€™s work in the Congo Basinâ€™s Virunga landscape builds on more than 20 years of supporting Virunga National Park and its surrounding communities. In that time, WWF has helped promote sustainable livelihoods, provided environmental education and increased protection of critically endangered species like the mountain gorilla. We are currently active on the ground to reduce the environmental impacts of this conflict in concert with those addressing humanitarian needs. WWF and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) will work to restore patrols and asses the health of the parkâ€™s wildlife whenever the security situation will permit us to do so.