Congo Volcano Spares Mountain Gorillas

GISENYI, Rwanda, January 21, 2002 (ENS) - The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not likely to directly affect the rare gorillas of the Virunga Mountains, but wildlife experts said today that chimpanzees and other wildlife in the forest around the volcano will be "devastated."

The eruption Thursday forced at least 350,000 residents of Goma to flee their homes. Some 50 people are reported to have died.

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Goma residents flee the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo. (Photo courtesy International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent)
Most people have fled into neighboring town of Gisenyi in Rwanda, but extreme heat and gaseous sulfur are making conditions intolerable even in Gisenyi, forcing the fleeing masses to move towards Ruhengeri and Kigali, in Rwanda, or to Bwindi in Uganda.

Conservationists are concerned this will also have a long term impact on wildlife and the environment.

Goma is the main base for international wildlife conservation activities in the Virunga Mountains for a number of organizations. The World Wide Fund for Nature's Environment Programme for Virunga National Park is based in Goma, and the program's coordinator, Ms. Mbake, was one of those who gathered her family and fled with only the clothes she had on her back.

WWF's office in Goma has not yet been hit by the lava, but is directly in the likely path of the lava flow and could be destroyed in the coming hours, according to Catherine Mgendi, spokesperson for WWF East Africa.

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Gorilla in the Virunga Mountains (Photo courtesy International Gorilla Conservation Programme)
Goma is also one of the bases for the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, jointly led by WWF, African Wildlife Foundation, and Flora and Fauna International.

The two WWF projects, for Virunga National Park and the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) have a combined staff of 18, who, together with their families, live in Goma. The local partner, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, has a staff of 25, who also live with their families.

So far no casualties have been reported among the staff and family members of any of these organizations, Mgendi said today.

According to WWF, it is difficult to judge at this point what impact the eruption will have on the environment.

Nyiragongo is one of eight volcanoes on the borders of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, a region dense with tropical forests and home to rare mountain gorillas.

The gorillas inhabit only the slopes of the six dormant volcanoes, and wildlife experts said they are not likely to be directly impacted by the lava flows from Nyiragongo.

"It is unlikely that the forest the gorillas inhabit will be affected greatly," said Annette Lanjouw, head of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. "However, chimpanzees and other wildlife in the forest around Nyiragongo will probably be devastated."

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Rwanda's Virunga Volcanos which shelter the last few hundred mountain gorillas are on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger. (Photo A. Raffaele Ciriello 1998)
There are fewer than 650 mountain gorillas left in the world. IGCPs overall goal is to ensure the survival of the mountain gorillas and their shrinking afro-montane forest habitat. Two isolated populations remain, one on the forested slopes of the Virunga volcanoes, straddling the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The other is in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, south-west Uganda.

"This eruption will affect every level of the mountain's ecosystem, from worms to primates," said Sam Kanyamibwa, WWF's representative for East Africa.

"The problem is the physical destruction of habitat, and of course the sulphur gases over the area. It is to fear that the ecological integration in the whole region is going to be affected one way or another," Kanyamibwa said.

The WWF Eastern Africa Programme Office based in Nairobi has dispatched two staff, Marc Languy and Eugene Rutagarama, to Gisenyi to support local staff and to monitor the situation. Another staff member, Bisidi Yalolo, will join them this week. IGCP's coordinator in Rwanda, Anecto Kayitare, has already shifted his base from Kigali to Gisenyi, also to provide support.

This team will take blankets, water, medicines, food, cooking utensils and other supplies to help local staff. Once staff and their health are secure, the WWF Eastern Africa Programme Office will reassess the situation and ensure that vehicles and equipment are saved.