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Mountain gorillas in danger as DR Congo rebels overrun habitat

by Staff Writers
Nairobi (AFP) Oct 7, 2007
Conservationists warned Sunday of a new threat to endangered mountain gorillas in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as renegade troops overran their habitat after clashes with the army.

Forces loyal to cashiered general Laurent Nkunda, a powerful local leader, took control of the gorilla sector in Virunga national park, said animal welfare charity Wildlife Direct.

"The rebels have taken control of the whole gorilla sector after fighting yesterday and today," spokeswoman Samantha Newport told AFP from the provincial town of Goma, south of the primates' habitat.

"It is very serious and the situation for gorillas is now worse than it was when fighting started five weeks ago. Rangers who were doing the tracking have been forced to flee," she added.

"All Congolese mountain gorillas are now unprotected, unmonitored and untracked and therefore there is nothing we can do at the moment."

Newport told AFP there was fighting "in and around the gorilla sector. Rangers can hear sounds of gunfire".

She added that rangers had removed all valuable tracking equipment from their Rumagambo headquarters, in case the clashes reach the area.

When fighting flared up late August, Nkunda's men attacked gorilla patrol posts of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) and looted weapons, ammunition and communication equipment.

A subsequent UN-mediated armistice unravelled, pushing fighting from the displaced countryside to the dense park.

Ten mountain gorillas have been killed and two have gone missing in Virunga national park since January. These slaughters, some blamed on Nkunda's men, have sparked outrage among conservationists.

After two were slaughtered and eaten in January, the renegade troops pledged to halt the killings in a meeting with Virunga park officials mediated by the United Nations and Congolese army, but the deal fell apart.

Local and foreign militias as well as Congolese soldiers, poachers and illegal miners regularly cross this area of the park, one of Africa's largest and a UNESCO world heritage site. Sometimes they occupy parts of it.

The mountain gorillas are a major tourist attraction in the Virunga park, but poaching of wildlife there is endemic.

Only about 700 critically endangered mountain gorillas remain in the wild, all of them living in the mountain forests of Rwanda, Uganda and the eastern DR Congo.

Conservationists say more than 150 rangers have been killed in the last 10 years while protecting five parks in the country's eastern region.

Apart from the mountain gorillas, DR Congo is also home to chimpanzees and bonobos -- pygmy chimps whose population has been decimated over the past 15 years.

Congolese troops said they had killed more than 70 rebels loyal to Nkunda in recent days in the eastern Nord Kivu region, where the Virunga national park is based.

Nkunda is a Tutsi, like neighbouring Rwanda's minority population targeted in the 2004 genocide by then Hutu troops and youth militias, and he claims one of his aims is to protect Congolese ethnic Tutsis.

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US scientist heralds 'artificial life' breakthrough
Washington (AFP) Oct 6, 2007
Controversial celebrity US scientist Craig Venter has announced he is on the verge of creating the first ever artificial life form which he hails as a potential remedy to illness and global warming.

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