The park in eastern Congo, parts of which have been overrun by rebel groups for years, was just beginning to enjoy record numbers of tourist arrivals when war broke out earlier this year, forcing the park to close and endangering both the gorillas and the rangers who police the reserve.
“In 20 years in Congo, it’s by far the most violent period I’ve ever known,” said Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian park director, who says arrivals had been set to double to 6,000 this year and pull in a record $2 million.
The world’s last 800 mountain gorillas live on the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, and their presence is a draw for wealthy tourists. “It was looking very, very promising, and unfortunately we came a cropper on the political situation,” de Merode said.
Army mutineers, known as M23, now hold much of the Rutshuru territory north of Goma, the provincial capital. Park turf under their command includes the part that is home to 200 mountain gorillas, as well as a new $1.2 million luxury lodge whose wine cellar doubled as a bunker for unarmed civilians when fighting spilled into the park.
For now an uneasy relationship exists between the environmentalists who run the park and rebels accused of war crimes, including summary executions, rape and forced recruitment of child soldiers.
U.N. experts say that Rwanda has supplied weapons and recruits to the rebels through the gorilla-inhabited section of the park, claims denied by both Rwanda and M23. Park officials say they have no direct evidence of Rwandan involvement.
Col. Sultani Makenga, M23’s leader, accepts the presence of park officials, according to de Merode and M23. “He came to see us,” de Merode said. “We’re not a threat to them, and we have to keep the park going, and we can’t leave. He accepted that.”
The park has not paid protection money to the rebels, de Merode and M23 said. “We have to stay very neutral — we risk losing the park if we play that game,” de Merode said. “Our job is to keep the park going through this conflict . . . and we’ve already lost our revenues from the suspension of tourism.”
But the presence of the rebels makes it difficult to monitor the gorillas. On two occasions when park rangers sought to locate the animals, they were disarmed by the rebels and forced to withdraw. Park rangers are still trying to locate two gorilla families after more than four months.
Worse, one of four orphan gorillas has died during the fighting, after the nine-year-old — rescued from a poacher’s snare five years ago — became ill and it was too dangerous to bring in a vet because of heavy shelling.