Virunga Gorillas
Virunga Gorillas

Photograph by Brent Stirton National Geographic July 2008

There are about 720 mountain gorillas ( Gorilla beringei beringei ) in the world. They make their home in two regions of eastern central Africa: the Virunga Mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. According to the most recent censuses, there are 380 gorillas in the Virunga region and 340 in Bwindi.

All mountain gorillas are wild; zoo gorillas are western lowland gorillas ( Gorilla gorilla gorilla ). Thanks to the hard work of conservation organizations and dedicated park rangers, the overall population of mountain gorillas has been steadily climbing since a historic low in the 1970s, when as few as 275 of the great apes remained. The drastically low number of mountain gorillas was due to habitat loss—as humans and their cattle moved into the gorillas' forest—and people hunting gorillas for sale. Poaching was big business, with hunters selling young gorillas and trophy body parts, such as heads and hands, on the black market. Despite the population increase over the past few decades, mountain gorillas are still endangered, their numbers relatively stable but fragile. Whereas poaching was a larger problem in the past, today the biggest threat mountain gorillas face is that they share valuable land with millions of people fighting for resources and survival. The forest has wood for fuel, land for farming, and minerals for mining, and the Congolese army, rebel militias, and local villagers all want a piece of it.

Ten gorillas were killed in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007, caught up in the human conflict that permeates the region. Seven of these gorillas were killed in June and July because of the illegal charcoal trade in the park (local people use charcoal to fuel their households). Their deaths were meant to send a message to park personnel who were trying to disrupt the trade. Ironically, other park staff, including the chief warden, are suspected of being involved in the charcoal trafficking and the killings. (Read this month's article Who Murdered the Virunga Gorillas?

Jenkins, Mark. "Who Murdered the Virunga Gorillas?" National Geographic (July 2008), 34-65.

Gray, Maryke, and others. Virunga Volcanoes Range Mountain Gorilla Census 2003. Joint Organizers' Report. UWA/ORTPN/ICCN, 2005.

MacNeilage, Alistair, and others. Mountain Gorilla Census—2006 Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Summary Report. ITFC, WCS, MPIEA, ICGP, UWA, 2007.

WildlifeDirect Gorilla Protection Blog.

Robbins, Martha, Pascale Sicotte, and Kelly Stewart, eds. Mountain Gorillas: Three Decades of Research at Karisoke. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Caldecott, Julian, and Lera Miles, eds. World Atlas of Great Apes and Their Conservation. University of California Press, 2005.

Other Resources

Radio Okapi.

Gorilla Journal.

Virunga National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

UNEP-WCMC data sheet on Virunga National Park.

Languy, Marc, and Emmanuel de Merode. Virunga: Survie du Premier Parc d’Afrique. Lannoo, 2006.

Other National Geographic Resources
Owen, James. Photo in the News: Gorilla Orphaned After Mom Shot 'Execution Style.' National Geographic News, June 11, 2007.

Lovgren, Stefan. Update: Baby Gorilla Found Alive After Mass 'Execution' in Congo. National Geographic News, July 27, 2007.

Lovgren, Stefan. Video: Gorillas Executed in Congo Park. National Geographic News, August 1, 2007.

Lovgren, Stefan. Congo Gorilla Killings Fueled by Illegal Charcoal Trade. National Geographic News, August 16, 2007.

Lovgren, Stefan. Rare Gorillas Helpless as Congo Rangers Flee Rebels. National Geographic News, September 5, 2007.

Lovgren, Stefan. Rare Gorillas at Risk as Rebels Seize Congo Park. National Geographic News, October 11, 2007.

Wadhams, Nick. Wildlife Park Official Arrested in Gorilla Killings. National Geographic News, March 25, 2008.

Crisis in North Kivu

Virunga National Park is located in the province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Seeds of the current crisis in North Kivu go back to the Rwanda genocide of 1994, during which about a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed by Rwandan armed forces and Hutu militias, in particular the Interahamwe. After the genocide a Tutsi rebel group took power, and more than a million refugees, mainly Hutu, fled into eastern Congo (then called Zaire). Some of these refugees are still in eastern DRC.

In May 1997 Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown by Laurent Kabila with the support of Rwanda and Uganda and pro-Tutsi Congolese rebel groups. Kabila renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Relations between Kabila and his supporters quickly became strained, and alliances collapsed. By the next year the DRC had plunged into an international war, also known as the Great African War: Congolese rebel groups backed by Rwanda and Uganda faced off against Kabila, who was supported by Angola, Chad, Namibia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. He was assassinated in January 2001 and replaced by his son Joseph. In 2002 the government and rebels met for peace talks and agreed to a cease-fire, but the fighting, especially in the east, never completely stopped. According to the International Rescue Committee, since the hostilities started in 1998, 5.4 million people have died, the vast majority from disease and malnutrition, and millions more have been displaced. (The first International Criminal Court trials for war crimes during the 1998-2003 Congo war begin in June 2008.

In 2003 the warring parties agreed to set up a transitional government with Joseph Kabila as president and four vice presidents representing the opposition groups. The transitional government held a successful constitutional referendum in December 2005 and national elections in 2006. Kabila was inaugurated president in late 2006 after defeating one of his vice presidents, Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo.

One of the goals of the transitional government to facilitate national unity was to integrate rebel soldiers into the national army. The program failed in North Kivu, leading to more fighting between rebel groups and government forces as well as among rebel groups. The most recent escalation in violence in the province started in November 2006 after the announcement of the presidential election results. Since then, more than 400,000 people have been displaced from their homes and thousands have been killed, tortured, and raped by both government and rebel forces.

There is no easy solution to the conflict in North Kivu. For one, there is no single conflict. Competition for land and natural resources is complicated by ethnic tensions, international disputes, and 800,000 internally displaced persons. North Kivu is home to valuable mineral reserves such as cassiterite (a source of tin), gold, and coltan (used in cell phones). Illegal mining, charcoal production, and cannabis trafficking are spread throughout the region and help finance troops on all sides. Warring factions often form alliances, but they’re tenuous and frequently change. The main players in North Kivu are:

FARDC—Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
While the army strives to maintain order in the province, corrupt soldiers and officers traffic in drugs and minerals and facilitate the illegal charcoal trade by transporting the fuel out of Virunga National Park in military trucks. The army alternately fights and allies with the FDLR Hutu militia. There are approximately 15,000 FARDC troops in the Virunga region.

FDLR—Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda
Successor to several Hutu militias that trace back to ex-Rwandan army soldiers and ex-Interahamwe troops who fled into Congo following the Rwanda genocide. The group’s supposed goal is the overthrow of the Rwandan government, but it has attacked Congolese civilians and fights the Congolese pro-Tutsi CNDP. The FDLR is deeply involved in the illegal charcoal trade in Virunga National Park as well as drug trafficking and illegal mining. There are approximately 4,000 FDLR troops in the Virunga region.

CNDP—National Congress for the People's Defense
Formed by rebel Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda in 2005, the CNDP has been a major instigator of violence in North Kivu since national elections in early 2006. Nkunda claims that he’s protecting the Tutsi minority in eastern Congo from genocide. The CNDP is dedicated to removing the Hutu FDLR from the DRC and calls for the return of Congolese refugees living in camps in Rwanda. The CNDP controls trade routes, charcoal production, and grazing lands in a southwestern sector of the park, and has controlled access to the gorilla sector in the southeastern part of the park since September 2007. Nkunda's forces have restarted gorilla tourism in the park without the permission of the Congolese park service (ICCN), whose rangers they ousted when they took control in 2007. There are approximately 4,000 CNDP troops in the Virunga region.

Mayi-Mayi/PARECO—Coalition of Resistant Congolese Patriots
The Mayi-Mayi are anti-Tutsi local defense militias organized along tribal lines. PARECO is an alliance of several of these groups. These militias claim that they're defending the Congolese people who suffer from the warfare between the FDLR and the CNDP. PARECO is known to cooperate with the FDLR in some areas and to buy weapons from the FARDC. There are a couple thousand PARECO troops in the Virunga region.

Also in the mix is the UN Mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, first deployed in 1999. MONUC has more than 16,000 peacekeepers in the DRC (5,700 in North Kivu alone), with the goals of implementing a cease-fire, demobilizing militias, and resettling the displaced population. MONUC is the UN’s largest and most expensive mission in the world and operates under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which authorizes its military personnel to use all means necessary to protect civilians under imminent threat of violence.

International Rescue Committee.

International Criminal Court.

"Congo: Bringing Peace to North Kivu." International Crisis Group Africa Report No. 133, October 31, 2007.

Renewed Crisis in North Kivu. Human Rights Watch, October 2007.

Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

National Congress for the People's Defense.

UN Mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

United Nations Peacekeeping Operations.

Spittaels, Steven, and Filip Hilgert. Mapping Conflict Motives: Eastern DRC. International Peace Information Service, March 4, 2008.

The 2008 World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency.

Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges. The Congo From Leopold to Kabila: A People's History. Zed Books, 2002.

Gondola, Ch. Didier. The History of the Congo. Greenwood Press, 2002.

Wrong, Michela. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo. Fourth Estate, 2000.

Shelton, Dinah, ed. Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. MacMillan Reference USA, 2007.

Melvern, Linda. Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide. Verso, 2004.

Prunier, Gérard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. Columbia University Press, 1995.

Arnold, Guy. Historical Dictionary of Civil Wars in Africa, 2nd edition. The Scarecrow Press, 2008.