World Environment Day-Many Species, One Planet, One Future
Kigali - Nairobi, 4 June 2010 - UN Peacekeepers in DR Congo are planning a new gorilla rescue airlift next month, in what may be one of the first operations conducted under their new mandate. As of 1 July, the UN Peacekeeping Mission in DR Congo (MONUC) will convert to a stabilization mission, as per a recent decision by the UN Security Council.
The rescue is being carried out amid concerns for the future of the endangered species and recommendations by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL to strengthen the capacity of the UN Mission and law enforcement bodies to combat cross-border environmental crime in the Greater Congo Basin and gorilla range states.
The operation, planned for mid July, is the second to be conducted by UN forces in DR Congo as part of a wider effort to combat the illegal cross-border trade in baby gorillas, which has intensified in recent years with the proliferation of armed groups in the region.
The first rescue mission was conducted by the peacekeeping mission (MONUC) on 27 May, when four eastern lowland baby gorillas, seized from poachers, were flown to safety by UN helicopters to a sanctuary in Kasughu in North Kivu, DRC. The second airlift will involve transporting another six babies to the sanctuary. Together, the orphaned gorillas are hoped to form a new "family" of ten. The ultimate objective is to rehabilitate the gorillas and to reintroduce them back in their natural environment.
Last Stand for the Gorilla
According to the UNEP report, entitled "The Last Stand for the Gorilla", unless urgent action is taken to strengthen the enforcement of environmental law and counter poaching, endangered gorillas may largely disappear from the Greater Congo Basin, in the next fifteen years.
Previous projections by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), made in 2002, suggested that only 10 per cent of the original ranges would remain by 2030.
These estimates now appear too optimistic, given the intensification of pressures including illegal logging, mining, charcoal production and increased demand for bushmeat, of which an increasing proportion is ape meat.
The Greater Congo Basin, including the Virunga mountain range, is considered one of the world's most resource-rich but troubled regions.
In the context of recent wars and continued unrest, the environment remains the silent victim of conflict in the region.
Natural resources are systemically exploited or illegally-harvested. Minerals such as diamonds, gold, cassiterite and coltan - used in laptops and mobile phones - as well as timber, end up crossing borders, passing through middle men and companies before being shipped onto countries in Asia, the European Union and the Gulf.
With militias controlling border crossings, profits made from such illegal trade - worth several hundred million US dollars annually - are central to fuelling the conflict and the commission of serious violations of human rights and the environment. The report estimates that militias make between $14 million and $50 million on road and border taxes alone.
In March, UNEP called on the international community to expand MONUC's capacity to combat such violations and halt environmental crime by strengthening the Mission's mandate to encompass security and control of border crossings - with regard to the export of illegally exploited natural resources financing the conflict.
Crucial to the task is transboundary collaboration with national and international law enforcement agencies and the mobilization of resources to support law enforcement, including investigations of complicit companies in recipient countries
Within the Virunga mountain range - which includes Rwanda, DRC and Uganda - especially in Rwanda's Volcanoes Park, the population of the critically endangered mountain gorillas has increased by 17% over the past fifteen years, thanks to intensified patrolling and conservation efforts carried out by the government and supported by international conservation groups and UN agencies.
The total number of mountain gorillas worldwide has now reached an estimated 700 individuals.
According to Juan Carlos Bonilla, of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International., "The only type of gorilla that is known to be increasing is the Mountain Gorilla found in areas governed by intense transboundary conservation."
The success of the Virunga experience is attributable to intensified law enforcement and the implementation of wealth-sharing agreements between range states, including the sharing of revenues from ecotourism and gorilla-related activities.