DAKAR, Senegal – Rebels in eastern Congo have killed and eaten two mountain gorillas, conservationists said Wednesday, adding they feared more of the endangered animals may have been slaughtered in the lawless region.
Only about 700 mountain gorillas remain in the world, 380 of them spread across a range of volcanic mountains straddling the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda in Central Africa.
One dismembered gorilla corpse was found Tuesday in a pit latrine in Congo's Virunga National Park, a few hundred yards from a park patrol post that was abandoned because of rebel attacks, according to the London-based Africa Conservation Fund.
Another was killed in the same area Jan. 5, said the group, which based its report on conservationists in the field.
The conservation group blamed rebels loyal to a local warlord, Laurent Nkunda, for the latest killing.
Nkunda is a renegade army soldier who commands thousands of fighters in the vast country's east who have in recent years assaulted major cities and clashed sporadically with government forces.
Paulin Ngobobo, a senior warden at the park, described finding the animal's remains on Tuesday on an Internet blog.
"We've learned a lot: the gorilla had in fact been eaten for meat. His name was Karema, another solitary silverback that had been born into a habituated group — meaning that he had grown to trust humans enough to let them come to within touching distance," Ngobobo wrote.
Silverbacks are older adult males and usually group leaders, though some are loners.
"We learned that the remaining gorillas are extremely vulnerable — the rebels are after the meat, and it's not difficult for them to find and kill the few gorillas that remain," Ngobobo wrote.
Ngobobo added that the first gorilla reported killed earlier this month had been shot by rebels and also eaten.
"A local farmer was ordered to help the rebels collect the meat of the gorilla," Ngobobo said. "He told them that the meat was dangerous to eat, and immediately informed us of the incident."
Robert Muir of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, who accompanied Ngobobo, said: "We need to impress on Nkunda and his men that it is inexcusable to destroy national and world heritage of such critical importance ... now that we know that the slaughtered gorilla was eaten, the gorillas habituated for tourism are at extreme risk — and we are worried that more have been killed already."
The last remaining hippo populations in Congo are in Virunga and are also on the verge of being wiped out. Conservationists have blamed rebels and militias for slaughtering them, and say more than 400 were killed last year, mostly for food. Only 900 hippos are left, a huge drop from the 22,000 reported there in 1998.
Virunga park has been ravaged by poachers and deforestation for more than a decade. The 1994 Rwandan genocide saw millions of refugees spill across the border into Congo, marking the beginning of an era of unrest, lawlessness and clashes between militias and myriad rebel groups.
Mineral-rich Congo, which held its first democratic elections in more than four decades last year, is struggling to recover from a broader 1998-2002 war that drew in the armies of more than half a dozen African nations.
The job of protecting the country's parks falls on local rangers, and the risks are high. In Virunga alone, some 97 rangers have died on duty since 1996, Africa Conservation Fund said.
On his blog, Ngobobo also describes being shot at and beaten by the military, who he and other rangers were trying to persuade to stop cutting down the forest.
Richard Leakey, a conservationist credited with helping end the slaughter of elephants in Kenya during the 1980s, said: "the survival of these last remaining mountain gorillas should be one of humanity's greatest priorities. Their future lies with a small number of very brave rangers risking their lives with very little support from the outside world."