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DRC/environment - interview

Our fight to save gorillas, by Virunga National Park chief

Article published on the 2009-05-02 Latest update 2009-05-05 11:30 TU

A baby gorilla saved from a suspected trafficker in the Democratic Republic of Congo.(Photo: Virunga National Park)

A baby gorilla saved from a suspected trafficker in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
(Photo: Virunga National Park)

After the rescue of a baby gorilla hidden in a bag at Goma airport this week, a leading campaigner says that the apes are in danger from poaching and the destruction of their natural habitat. Virunga National Park Director Emmanuel de Merode tells RFI about his efforts to ensure that gorillas are not wiped out.

Veterinarians in the Democratic Republic of Congo say that the baby gorilla saved from an animal trafficker last week is recovering.

It was found in the bottom of a bag severely dehydrated and malnourished. Authorities arrested the animal trafficker at Goma International Airport.

The rescue was "culmination of a three-month operation", says Emmanuel de Merode, the Director of Virunga National Park. His team had received a tip-off about smuggling operations, which led to the rescue, recorded on video on the park's website.

Such operations expose a deeper problem, he told RFI.

Explanation: Virunga National Park director

05/05/2009 by Brent Gregston

"What we've come to realise is that for every baby gorilla that is seized - and two others were seized last year - many more make it through and many on top of that die before reaching Goma.

"And what you have to add to that is that every time a baby gorilla is taken by traffickers, often the whole family of that baby gorilla is killed, so it has a huge impact on what is essentially a critically endangered species."

Belgian-born de Merode says that the baby gorilla was a lowland gorilla, a species which is even more endangered than mountain gorillas which are also found in the area. The latest surveys have shown an increase in the number of mountain gorillas, even though they have suffered from the war in the area.

But "it wouldn't take much to provoke an extinction of either population," he says.

The biggest threat to the apes is the destruction of their natural habitat to make charcoal for the use of local people. But banning the trade does not work, de Merode believes.

"What you have to realise is that most people in eastern Congo, especially in the urban areas, have no choice. They need fuel. They can't survive without it, so we can't rely on enforcement to stop them ... clearing forest for charcoal."

So the park has introduced an innovative scheme, the production of fuel briquettes, "made from grass, leaves, just about anything that's plant matter", which burn as well as charcoal.

"Clients include internally displaced people's camps and high-end restaurants in Goma," de Merode says. "They also create a huge amount of employment."

And to fight the poachers, the website offers the chance to sponsor the clearing of snares in 30-acre blocks of forest, an initiative which will "allow people anywhere in the world to work with us to try and protect the park", de Merode says.