Rwanda insecurity threatens rare mountain gorillas
By Jean Baptiste Kayigamba
MUSUNZU, Rwanda, June 6 (Reuters) - The rare mountain gorillas of the forests of central Africa are under threat after Rwandan rebels killed two of the majestic animals in recent days, conservationists said on Wednesday.
For the first time, the rebels are reported to have eaten the carcasses of the animals they shot, breaking a local taboo about eating primates which could set a dangerous precedent.
"It is a big concern the fact that people are eating them," Annette Lanjouw of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme said in Nairobi.
"The fact that it's happened once means it can happen again...the problem is that gorillas are easy to track."
There are only about 650 mountain gorillas left in the wild. Around300 live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of southwest Uganda and 350 more in the forested slopes of the Virunga volcanoes, in a national park spanning the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
The latest deaths occurred in the Rwandan part of the park, after ethnic Hutu rebels crossed over from the Congo and fought a series of battles with the Rwandan army.
One of the rebels was captured afterwards by government troops, and said he had been reluctant to eat the gorilla meat.
"We heard three shots and after some time we saw some guys coming with meat," Innocent Kagango told reporters.
He said the gorilla was cut up into pieces, cooked and eaten by his hungry colleagues.
"I said to them 'you have started killing that mzee (old man), you will end up eating me as well."'
But Innocent's warning did not deter his colleagues -- he said another gorilla was slaughtered the following morning.
VITAL TOURIST TRADE THREATENED
Across the border in the Congo, the gorillas have long shared the Virunga foothills with Rwandan rebels and other militia groups who hide out in the forests.
Eighteen of the animals were killed between 1995 and 2000 -- most of them believed to have been shot when militiamen came upon groups by accident in the dense jungle. None have ever been eaten before.
By contrast, the Rwandan portion of the Virunga range, known as the Volcanoes' National Park, has been stable for years and is major tourist draw for the tiny central African country.
The Rwandan government immediately stepped up patrols in the area and ordered that all the gorilla groups be located and guarded until the threat had passed. Similar measures are being taken across the border in the Congo.
Tourists are still visiting the Volcanoes' National Park and a large group of 35 gorillas was shown to reporters this week, eating peacefully in the bamboo forest of Musunzu.
Nevertheless, there are concerns for the future, especially after clashes between rebels and the military in the Ugandan part of the park at the weekend.
"I think the parks are reluctant to close as long as they can offer good protection (for tourists)," said Lanjouw. "But if this goes on, they will have no choice but to close the parks."
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