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Threat to Great Apes Highlighted at Virunga Meet

Threat to Great Apes Highlighted at Virunga Meeting; Ministers, conservationists will examine challenges, consider solutions

Washington -- Contrary to some fictional portrayals, gorillas are gentle creatures now under serious threat of extinction at the hands of human killers. A ministerial meeting in Gisenyi, Rwanda, will address how to save them and their habitat.

About 700 mountain gorillas remain in the African wild. About half of them live in the Virunga region that includes parts of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

"The unique biodiversity of the Virunga region is of global importance, and it deserves full conservation support to assure its continued existence," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Claudia McMurray told prior to leaving for the July 14-15 meeting.

"The forests of Central Africa play a central role not only in the livelihoods of millions of people, but also in stabilizing regional and global climate patterns," she said. She praised the courage of park rangers who risk their lives to protect wildlife and the rainforest habitat. More than 120 rangers have been killed on the job in the past 10 years.

Wildlife, habitat and rangers in Virunga National Park in the DRC are under siege. A war between rebel militias and the Congolese army often prevents rangers' access to the park. Charcoal traffickers are another peril. Charcoal is the chief local cooking fuel and old-growth hardwood forests are illegally felled and turned into charcoal for this lucrative trade.

In July 2007 the well-known Rugendo family of gorillas was killed in Virunga National Park, a month after a female gorilla was found shot in the back of the head in the same area. A total of seven gorillas died. Rangers and conservationists working to save the rainforest saw the deaths as a message from charcoal traffickers to discourage interference.

A former park director accused of masterminding the gorilla killings, Honore Mashagiro, was arrested in March. Mark Jenkins' July National Geographic cover story "Who Murdered the Virunga Gorillas?" describes how Mashagiro persecuted Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) warden Paulin Ngobobo, driving him underground.

A WildlifeDirect field officer told Jenkins, "When rangers on patrol could not arrest people directly involved in the charcoal trade, it was because Mashagiro himself was protecting them." Kenya-based WildlifeDirect, headed by noted anthropologist Richard Leakey, actively protects the gorillas.

Balancing Conservation With Economic Development

The conference of regional ministers that will be convened by the Central Albertine Rift Transboundary Core Secretariat and Assistant Secretary McMurray will examine causes of the gorilla killings along with economic and conservation challenges, focusing on how to protect its precious resources.

The DRC, Rwanda and Uganda have signed the "Tripartite Declaration on Transboundary Natural Resource Management of the Transfrontier Protected Area Network of the Central Albertine Rift," which lays out a 10-year strategic conservation plan for the area.

The United States supports economic development and conservation efforts in Central Africa through the U.S. Agency for International Development's Central African Regional Program for the Environment and the Congo Basin Forest Partnership.

NASA satellite imagery has helped scientists monitor clearing of Virunga forests by farmers and charcoal traffickers. (See "NASA Satellite Imagery Helps Protect African Mountain Gorillas.")

The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society works closely with the ICCN to build park management expertise and provide equipment to rangers.

Mountain gorillas are just one of the great ape species endangered by war, poachers and habitat loss. Bonobos and chimpanzees are also in decline. (See "Virginians Join International Effort to Preserve Bonobo Habitat.")

Often the apes are killed to supply "bushmeat," an African delicacy, but great apes also can fall victim to Ebola and common human respiratory viruses - of particular concern because tourism provides jobs and is important for economic development.

A growing human population competes for local resources and encroaches on habitat, compounding the problem. Charcoal trafficking relies on demand from the hundreds of thousands of people in the region. Each family uses an estimated 68 kilograms of charcoal per month.

Tackling these complex issues is a daunting prospect for government agencies and conservationists, and for park rangers, who are poorly funded and ill-equipped.

Virunga National Park, in the DNC but bordering on Uganda and Rwanda, was established in 1925. It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979 for its singular diversity of wildlife and habitats, which range from swampy lowlands, forests and savannahs to steep volcanic mountains.

"The remarkable dedication of our conservation partners in Virunga, despite many dangers, deserves wide recognition. We believe that conservation can play an integral role in establishing stability and supporting economic development in the region," McMurray said.


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