Fighting intensifies in mountain gorilla sector, Virunga National Park

Updating our report on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fighting continued in and around the Virunga National Park patrol posts of Bikenge and Jomba over the weekend.

United Nations combat helicopters fired missiles into the presumed rebel positions on the hills of Cianzu and Runioni, on the edge of the Park. The Congolese army began a sustained assault of the area early Sunday morning, using heavy machine guns and what is thought to be 120mm mortars – heavy shells that can cause very significant damage.

Virunga National Park reports are hearing that the Park’s ranger post at Bikenge has been severely damaged. Park staff have been pulled out of the gorilla sector, leaving only two of five patrol posts in the mountain gorilla sector currently staffed and operational.

To retrace events since the beginning of April up to the weekend’s events, please click through the Virunga National Park’s website for a map and full account.

Park management are securing staff, and are trying to keep the work going as best they can. As reported on their website, “Most of the park is unaffected by the fighting, and work is continuing as usual. We’re very worried about the mountain gorillas and for the populations living around Bukima and Bikenge.”

International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) Interim Director, Dr Augustin Basabose said, “The resurgence of war in this area is a high risk for both Critically Endangered mountain gorillas and humans. Though mountain gorillas are not directly a target of the opposing forces, the bombardments of heavy artillery in their habitat are sure to have a negative impact on their behavior and jeopardise their safety.”

The epicentre of heavy fighting between the rebels and the Congolese Army since Friday, in the Jomba area, is also the focus of recent IGCP community conservation activities. IGCP’s Programme Officer and Country Representative in DRC, Altor Musema, states, “From the information I received this morning, there was no fighting through Sunday night in the Jomba area. But the situation remains the same today because the rebels are still occupying villages surrounding Bikenge and Jomba patrol posts, including the village of Chanzu, where IGCP is currently constructing one communal and 11 household rainwater harvesting tanks.”

IGCP staff have contacted most of the community associations they work with and hear that most people fled to neighboring Uganda as the fighting erupted late last week.

Fauna & Flora International is a coalition member of IGCP along with the African Wildlife Foundation and the World Wide Fund for Nature.