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National Park of 'Gorillas in the Mist' Fame Victim of Severe Illegal Forest Clearing

WASHINGTON - Over the last two months, nearly 4,000 acres of prime mountain gorilla habitat has been cleared by illegal settlers in Africa's Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site and site of Dian Fossey's groundbreaking gorilla research. World Wildlife Fund is calling on government officials there to take immediate action to protect the park. The settlements were uncovered by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, which found that since April, thousands of people from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have destroyed large tracts of the park to create agricultural and pastoral land.

Located in DRC on the border with Rwanda and Uganda, Virunga National Park is home to more than half the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas - one of the most critically endangered species on the planet. Encroachment into their habitat reduces the gorilla's breeding area and limits their access to food. The park is also home to the world's only golden monkey population. The mountain gorillas generate around $2 million for the region annually from tourism.

According to information received by WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society and their conservation partners, most of the destruction took place from early May to June. Several thousand people moved in to the area to farm illegally in Virunga, with support from influential local individuals who sold plots of land within the national park. The forest was clearcut and turned into timber or charcoal before crops were planted.

"Recent meetings between administrative and military authorities from DRC and Rwanda have been very positive and have apparently led to the removal of illegal settlers and a cessation in forest clearance," said Dr. Peter J. Stephenson, WWF's African Great Apes Program coordinator. "However, WWF remains very concerned that if clear instructions are not given by the highest levels of government in Rwanda and DRC to their local authorities, the destruction will restart and expand even further. WWF and its partners are working to improve the livelihoods of local people around Virunga through community projects - destroying the park is not a solution and in the long- term will cause even more suffering to people as well as gorillas."

WWF is urging the Congolese and Rwandan governments to take measures to enforce the UN World Heritage Convention that protects this unique site. WWF is also calling on the international community to fund park patrols, the peaceful evacuation of illegal settlers, and the restoration of destroyed areas.

"What is happening in Virunga is a disaster," says Marc Languy, coordinator of WWF's program in the Albertine Rift. "Thanks to conservation efforts during the past decades, the mountain gorillas have survived civil unrest and war in the region. Loss of habitat is however the worse threat to this species. It is also a loss for the local communities as the forest provides many ecological and economical services to the neighboring population, and many local people benefit from gorilla tourism revenues."

Notes to Editors: A subspecies of Eastern gorillas, the mountain gorilla (gorilla beringei beringei) became known to science in 1902. Uncontrolled hunting, destruction of its forest habitat and capture for the illegal pet trade soon led to a dramatic decline in numbers and fears that the mountain gorilla would become extinct in the same century it was discovered.

However, despite these dire predictions, ground-breaking work by conservation groups has seen the population grow from 624 in 1989 to at least 700 today. Half of these gorillas are found in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the rest are in the Virunga Mountains, in habitat shared by Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Northern Rwanda, and the southern sector of Virunga National Park in DRC.