Virunga Park: Is There a Future for It and the Mountain Gorilla?

By B. McPherson

This wildlife refuge in the Albertine Rift area of Africa was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979. The
790 000 ha site was dedicated as a park in 1925. Since then it has been subjected to increasing pressure from the swelling populations in that area. Villagers crowd the park boundaries and infiltrate it, seeking to increase their plantings and find forage for their cattle. Charcoal merchants turn park trees into fuel for city dwellers in Goma who lack other means to cook their food.

Tomorrow the Democratic Republic of the Congo(DRC) will hold elections. Perhaps the warfare that has raged in this area will cool, perhaps not. Virunga Park also  borders the countries of Rwanda and Uganda, countries that have had their share of civil unrest, resulting in massacres and millions of displaced people.
Enterprising poachers have slaughtered many of the large mammals in the park and sold the meat to soldiers, and irregular militia as well as to the refugees.

As well as direct action by humans in the area, a human respiratory virus has been found to infect the Mountain Gorillas. We share most of our genetic makeup with these great beasts and some viruses have shown an unfortunate ability to jump species(eg. Swine flu). The endangered gorilla habitat is surrounded on all sides by dense populations of humans.

The gorillas are not the only endangered species in the park. Those wardens who are tasked with saving the habitat and wildlife are murdered on a regular basis. These brave wardens are all that defend Virunga from well armed poachers.

National Geographic is a good online source for material on Virunga. Their timeline of events over the past 18 years outlines events that have undermined the health and safety of what should have been an unassailable sanctuary for the plants and animals of the African rift area.

There is some good news. The DRC has decided to suspend exploration for oil within the park boundaries. There are not yet guarantees that exploration will not resume after the elections.

Following are some of the issues that have led to the park being placed on the endangered list: ivory trade, bush meat, charcoal poachers, illegal farming, illegal grazing of cattle, ongoing warfare which keeps tourists and their money away, spreading of human diseases to endangered animals.

Let us all hope that the gorillas and their park don’t vanish like the morning mist due to humans actions.



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