A United Nations-supported expert mission leaves for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) tomorrow to investigate the apparently senseless slaughter of mountain gorillas, a highly endangered species living only in national parks on the country’s north-eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda.
“There is grave concern for the mountain gorillas as the latest killings are inexplicable,” said the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is organizing the 10-day mission with the World Conservation Union (IUCN), a union of governments, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations.
“They do not correspond to traditional poaching where animals are killed for commercial purposes. Furthermore the killings have taken place despite the increased guard patrols and the presence of military forces in the area,” it added in a statement.
Seven mountain gorillas have been shot and killed this year, four of them last month, in the DRC’s Virunga National Park, more than during the conflict that wracked Africa’s Great Lakes region in the late 1990s. Some 700 of the large animals, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list, are estimated to still survive in the tri-border areas, about 370 of them in Virunga.
“These killings are a blow for the preservation of mountain gorillas and a setback for conservation efforts at the World Heritage site,” the agency said.
The mission has been invited by the DRC authorities and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN). Working with local authorities and partners in the field, the mission will investigate the reasons for targeting the animals and propose measures for their protection and for improving the conservation of the site’s outstanding universal value.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative in the country, William Lacy Swing, has promised the mission the full support of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC).
The mission will meet with government officials in Kinshasa, the capital, collect data including testimony from guards and administrators of Virunga, confer with political and military leaders and local communities of the province, and examine the state of conservation of the park, the threats on the site and its actual management.
They will also examine the economic impact of the situation on the local economy, notably in relation to tourism. Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa, established in 1925.
UNESCO is planning a high-level meeting in the autumn to examine ways to improve the situation, bringing together the DRC authorities, the agency’s natural heritage specialists, representatives of the African Union, sub-regional organizations and the IUCN.
UNESCO and observers are particularly concerned to note that political and military improvements on the ground in recent years have failed to contribute to the conservation of World Heritage properties in the DRC, properties whose integrity has been preserved during the years of the Great Lake Conflict in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to funding by Belgium, Italy and the UN Foundation. Virunga and other sites in the east of the DRC are particularly vulnerable.