Rebels in eastern Congo have killed and eaten two silverback mountain gorillas, conservationists said Wednesday, warning they fear more of the endangered animals may have been slaughtered in the lawless region.
Only about 700 mountain gorillas remain in the world, 380 of them spread across a range of volcanic mountains straddling the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda in Central Africa.
One dismembered gorilla corpse was found Tuesday in a pit latrine in Congo’s Virunga National Park, a few hundred yards from a park patrol post that was abandoned because of rebel attacks, according to the London-based Africa Conservation Fund. Another was killed in the same area on Jan. 5, said the group, which based its report on conservationists in the field.
The group blamed rebels loyal to a local warlord, Laurent Nkunda, for the latest killing. Nkunda is a renegade soldier who commands thousands of fighters in the vast country’s east who have in recent years assaulted cities and clashed sporadically with government forces.
Silverbacks are older adult males and usually group leaders, though some are loners.
“We learned that the remaining gorillas are extremely vulnerable—the rebels are after the meat, and it’s not difficult for them to find and kill the few gorillas that remain.”
The last remaining hippo populations in Congo are in Virunga and are also on the verge of being wiped out. Conservationists have blamed rebels and militias for slaughtering them, and say more than 400 were killed last year, mostly for food. Only 900 hippos remain, a huge drop from the 22,000 reported there in 1998.
Virunga park has been ravaged by poachers and deforestation for more than a decade. The 1994 Rwandan genocide saw millions of refugees spill into Congo, marking the beginning of an era of unrest, lawlessness and clashes between militias and rebel groups.
Mineral-rich Congo, which held its first democratic elections in more than four decades last year, is struggling to recover from a 1998-2002 war that drew in the armies of more than half a dozen African nations.
The job of protecting the country’s parks falls on local rangers, and the risks are high. In Virunga alone, some 97 rangers have died on duty since 1996, the Africa Conservation Fund said.