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Bodies of four critically endangered mountain gorillas found in Congo's Virunga National Park

Washington -- World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and its partners are taking swift action to protect critically endangered mountain gorillas after three females and one male silverback were discovered shot to death in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The bodies were discovered in the southern sector of the Virunga National Park by rangers from the Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), the DRC's wildlife and protected areas authority. All four mountain gorillas were shot, but it is unclear who killed them and why.

Just over 700 mountain gorillas survive in the wild today, and none exist in captivity. For such a small population the unnecessary and indiscriminate killing of four mountain gorillas is a huge loss.

"WWF is deeply saddened by these shocking deaths and is immediately engaging with ICCN, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) as well as the US State Department to develop a quick and appropriate response," said Richard Carroll, Managing Director of WWF's Congo Basin Program. "Strict measures will be taken to ensure the safety of the other gorillas in the area. WWF will continue to work with partners to strengthen protection measures and seek permanent solutions to ensure the safety of these rare animals. "

The gorillas belonged to the Rugendo group that lived in the area often visited by tourists - providing valuable economic benefits for local communities.

The male silverback was an alpha male. Alpha males fulfill a leadership role within a group, and in their absence the integrity of the group is often compromised. Before the killings the Rugendo group was comprised of 12 individuals. Six are confirmed as safe, but two gorillas, a female and an infant, are missing.

ICCN patrols have been increased within the southern sector of the park with support from the DRC army. Guard posts are being constructed to provide 24-hour surveillance of the park.

The Virunga National Park is one of Africa's oldest national parks and one of Earth's most important biological ecoregions. WWF has been working in Virunga National Park for 20 years on environmental education and awareness programs, sustainable livelihoods, reforestation and the protection of species such as mountain gorillas. A recent survey found that gorilla numbers in the Virunga Mountains have increased by 17 percent over the past 14 years to 380, so the latest killings highlight the need for increased resources and protection.

"Just two months ago, we celebrated the increase of the gorilla population in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda," said Dr. Kwame Koranteng, Regional Representative of WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Program Office. "Seven gorillas killed in seven months is a horrifying statistic and a trend that cannot continue."

Earlier this year two silverback male gorillas were shot dead in the same area of the park. The perpetrators were believed to be supporters of Laurent Nkunda. The skin of one of the dead gorillas was recovered from a latrine in a nearby rebel camp. In May, a female gorilla was shot dead in the same park. Her infant is now being hand reared by the ICCN in Goma.

Post mortem examinations on the four gorillas are being carried out. The bodies will be buried near Bukima, an outpost within the park.