In Congo Conflict, Endangered Gorillas Are Pawns

| Tue Nov. 18, 2008 4:00 PM EST

gorilla150.jpg This is a truly heartbreaking story. The New York Times reports on yet another facet of the bloodshed in the Congo: Endangered mountain gorillas are among the rebels' targets:

Congo's gorillas happen to live in one of the most contested, blood-soaked pieces of turf in one of the most contested, blood-soaked corners of Africa. Their home, Virunga National Park, is high ground — with mist-shrouded mountains and pointy volcanoes — along the porous Congo-Rwanda border, where rebels are suspected of smuggling in weapons from Rwanda. Last year in Virunga, 10 gorillas were killed, some shot in the back of the head, execution style, park officials said.

According to this AP story, the rebels often eat the slaughtered gorillas. But it's unlikely that the militias are killing them solely for their meat. The reason? Read on after the jump.

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First, the park is full of wildlife—the Times story mentions that the rebels have also hunted hippopotamuses for their meat; after a recent machine gun rampage in a local watering hole, a park spokeswoman said, "The lake turned red." What's more, the gorillas are perfect pawns—since only 700 individuals remain in the Congo, they have political caché.

In recent months, the rebel attacks in the park have become so frequent that the 240 rangers who had been protecting the gorillas have been driven out of the area. The other night, a conservation biologist friend told me that a few park wardens have chosen to continue to do their job without pay. The Times didn't report that, but the rangers' dedication to the gorillas is obvious; as one told the Times, "They are like our cousins."