JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Africas endangered mountain gorillas have suffered a fresh blow from illegal settlers who have cut a swathe of forest out of their Congo home, the World Wildlife Fund is warning.
There are only about 700 mountain gorillas left in the world in the lush mountains and volcanoes straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the anarchic Democratic Republic of the Congo, and any loss of remaining habitat can push them closer to extinction.
Over the last two months, 1,500 hectares (six square miles) of prime mountain gorilla habitat have been cleared by illegal settlers in Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site, the group said in a statement.
Since April, convoys of people from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have destroyed large tracts of the park, home to the mountain gorilla and other endangered species, to create agricultural and pastoral land, the WWF added.
In all of Virunga there is only about 180 square miles of suitable gorilla habitat, so the loss of even six square miles is important.
This is particularly significant since it is encroaching on an area where gorillas live. There are three family groups in that area comprising about 50 animals, said Peter Stephenson, the group’s African Great Apes program coordinator.
The group said evidence of the deforestation was uncovered by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature and that most of the damage took place from early May to June.
Several thousand people moved in to the area to farm illegally in Virunga … The forest has been entirely cut down and turned into timber or charcoal, the WWF said.
The group added that recent meetings between Congolese and Rwandan officials had led to a cessation in forest clearance but it remained concerned that it could start again.
If the deforestation continues then some of the animals will be cut off from the rest of the park, Stephenson said.
The border area has been a scene of tension in recent weeks after Congo accused Rwanda — which has twice invaded its giant neighbor in the past eight years — of backing renegade troops who briefly seized an eastern Congolese town in early June.
Rebel groups have used the gorillas forest home for bloody incursions into all three countries and military activity is another threat to their survival.