July has proven to be another extremely distressing month for our colleagues in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. In early July, the M23 rebel movement succeeded in seizing several key towns around the southern sector of the park where Virunga’s 200 wild mountain gorillas live. The Congolese army and the UN withdrew from the national park, leaving the defense of the park headquarters to a small team of rangers and Chief Park Warden Emmanuel de Merode. All nonessential park staff and families were evacuated to camps near the regional capital of Goma.
During the last full week of July, a battle raged between the rebels and the Congolese army at the military base just below the hill where the national park headquarters is located. Although the headquarters was not a target, mortars and stray bullets landed in the area, injuring several locals and killing at least one person. At this moment, rebel forces control the Rumangabo military base but are allowing the national park rangers to reenter the gorilla sector of the park to begin searching for Virunga’s six habituated gorilla families.
Due to the heavy fighting and instability, the Gorilla Doctors have not been able to monitor the mountain gorilla orphans at the Senkwekwe Center or the habituated gorilla families in the park. While we are extremely frustrated with our inability to check on the gorillas, we are grateful for the dedication of the Virunga National Park staff members who have bravely remained behind to hold the park headquarters. We have our fingers crossed that the rangers will be able to find all of the habituated gorillas alive and that conditions will improve so that we are able to safely travel to the park.