KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Endangered Grauer's gorillas have become victims of ongoing violence and a new rebellion in eastern Congo. A decision to allow oil exploration in a national park there may put the gorillas at greater risk.
Virunga National Park said Monday that wildlife authorities rescued two baby gorillas in the space of a week this month.
"Baby gorilla trafficking is terribly damaging for endangered gorilla populations because many members of the gorilla's family will probably have been killed to obtain the infant," said the park's director, Emmanuel de Merode.
Fighting between rival militia groups is making it impossible for wildlife authorities to find out how many of the Grauer's gorillas have been killed. Grauer's, also known as eastern lowland gorillas, exist only in eastern Congo. Experts estimate that fewer than 4,000 remain, down from about 17,000 in 1995, de Merode said in a statement.
The poaching comes as the park itself faces oil exploration. Congo's Hydrocarbons Minister Crispin Atama Tabe announced Monday that the government is authorizing the British firm SOCO to explore for oil in the park, Africa's oldest created in 1925 under Belgian rule. Virunga National Park, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1970s, is the only place on Earth that boasts all three African great apes in addition to elephants, buffalo, hippos, larges antelopes, lions, leopards and a plethora of smaller animals and birds. Virunga and the SOCO concession encompass Lake Edward, one of the Central African great lakes that provides a livelihood for some 40,000 fishermen.
Atama Tabe told The Associated Press that oil exploitation could help bring security to volatile east Congo, although mining of the region's massive mineral riches has had the opposite effect with various armed groups vying for control of revenues the minerals bring.
Monday's permission contrasts with the Environment Ministry's decision last year to suspend oil exploration in an area of Virunga that is home to more than 200 gorillas. Environment Minister Bavo Nsamputu said he was unable to comment on Monday's news as he had been out of the country.
Park officials say Congo's law protects national parks from any kind of exploitation, including logging of timber for charcoal that is a lucrative business for armed militias, or even farming by peasants. That argument persuaded the French oil group Total to promise last year that it would not exploit the one-third of its concession that falls in Virunga.
SOCO, with 58 percent of its concession in the national park, argues, among other things, that the Nature Conservation law allows "geological research for scientific purposes."
SOCO also quotes exemptions in the Nature Conservation law for "research work, such as sampling materials, digging, excavations, surveying, and all other work that may change the look of the land or vegetation."
Virunga park rangers have shed blood to protect the park and its animals: 11 were killed last year in armed confrontations; this year one has been killed and several wounded, according to de Merode.
He said the first baby gorilla, a 9-month-old female now named Isangi, was brought to wildlife authorities Sept. 13 by a community conservation group that said it had rescued the infant from a local militia group called Raiya Mutomboko, which means Angry People in Swahili.
On Sept. 20, rangers and local officials acting on a tip-off carried out a sting operation and rescued a 4-month female that has been named Baraka, which means Blessing in Swahili. Baraka's captors claimed to have rescued the infant gorilla from the Walikale area where several armed groups compete for control of mines.
Isangi was in good shape after six weeks in captivity, veterinarian Eddy Kambale said in a statement, but Baraka was weak and dehydrated after two weeks' captivity.
The two infants are being cared for in a sanctuary at Virunga that is home to three mountain gorilla orphans whose parents were killed in the park in 2007.
Virunga has a small family of Grauer's gorillas. Most live in Kahuzi Biega national park and forests, including the Walikale area.
Faul reported from Johannesburg.