Rebel soldiers commanded by dissident general, Laurent Nkunda, shot and killed a silverback Mountain Gorilla in the Southern Sector of Virunga National Park, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, according to Wildlife Direct.
The killing happened on January 5, 2007, less than 600 metres from a patrol post at Bikenge, which was recently abandoned following rebel attacks. Ironically, 29 years ago, almost to the date, Dian Fossey's beloved silverback "Digit" was killed in much the same manner. Walter Cronkite announced Digit's killing on the CBS Evening News, making Digit, Fossey and the plight of the mountain gorilla a "cause celebre." This new event is eerily similar to what happened near Fossey's research station. Both silverback's were "habituated" to human contact, making them trust humans and therefore vulnerable to attack.
Robert Muir of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, commented on his blog that, "The killing of a gorilla is a disaster for us. That the gorilla that was killed was a habituated silverback makes it worse." In recent weeks, Muir has been able to provide emergency food and housing to an elite ranger force which guards the gorillas. Fighting has been ongoing between Congolese rebel forces, led by Nkunda.
According to sketchy reports from the scene, a farmer from the area was ordered to help the rebels butcher and collect the meat of the gorilla; he told them the meat was dangerous to eat and informed the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) of the incident.
The killing has provoked deep concern among conservationists. Ian Redmond, Chief Consultant for GRASP, the UN Great Apes Survival Project stated, "in a population this small, every individual counts and the loss of a trusting young silverback is tragic on many levels". Redmond worked with Fossey for many years at her research camp on the Rwandan side of the gorilla habitat.
According to a statement made by Wildlife Direct, local communities rely on the protection of the gorillas of which there remain only 700 worldwide - to boost much needed tourism revenues. Dian Fossey was adamantly opposed to tourism throughout much of her life, but relaxed her opposition somewhat during the last years of her life, realizing that tourism could raise money for conservation awareness.
Muir comments, "The future survival of this species is now under threat, and I fear that this recent attack on the gorillas could signal a wave of such killings if immediate action is not taken to remove Nkunda's and his troops from their habitat."
There is some reason for concern, since the killing of the silverback follows the slaughter of hundreds of hippos on the south-western shore of Lake Edward in Virunga National Park in December by the Mai Mai militia. The role of the Mai Mai is enigmatic at best, with some believing that their main interest is to prevent exploitation of tribal lands by western interests. There has been little reporting, if any, from this region and caution must be exercised before assigning motivation to any actions. The human population is also under great stress in eastern DRC.
Redmond agrees that motivation for the killings is unclear. "It (motivation) could range from panic, to profit to hunger. Panic, because men with guns expecting any moment to meet opposition forces are likely to react to a silverback bark by shooting - even just a rustle in the bushes might be interpreted as an enemy. Profit, because meat and infant sales can bring money, and hunger,
because Nkunda's troops may well include people who do regard apes as good eating."
In early December, the conservation ranger force was forced to abandon four patrol posts and flee to Uganda, where they remained as refugees. The International Primate Protection League (IPPL) immediately provided the $1,000 seed money for emergency support. When Shirley McGreal, a friend of the slain primatologist Fossey, learned that fighting would likely continue, putting the gorillas at continued risk without the protection of the rangers, she went to her board at IPPL and obtained an additional $2,500. Over $9,000 in total emergency support has been raised, aided by the Africa Conservation Fund, The Born Free Foundation, UNESCO, FZS and one private donor. Muir was able to purchase rations and cooking pots to feed 15 families, consisting of 80 people including rangers, their wives and their children.
Paulin Ngobobo is the chief Warden for the Southern Sector of Virunga Park in DRC.
"The habituation was for tourism, which generates revenue for the local community - their support is one of the main reasons that we have managed to protect them. But a habituated gorilla is extremely trusting, and will let a human being approach to almost touching distance. They don't stand a chance against poachers, unless we can protect them."
His rangers have continued their work without interruption throughout the war, and during that time the gorilla popuation has increased by over 14%, or approximately 98 individuals. These numbers have come at great human cost, since 97 of Virunga's rangers on both sides of the Congolese/Rwandan border have died protecting the park's wildlife against poachers since 1996.