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DRC Rebels Accused of Eating Endangered Gorillas

Conservationists in Eastern Congo have accused rebel forces of killing and eating highly endangered mountain gorillas. The report of the bizarre behavior emerged as a renegade rebel leader in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Laurent Nkunda, prepared to sign a peace deal that could finally bring stability to the volatile region. Naomi Schwarz has more from our regional bureau.

Conservationists in eastern Congo are reporting the deaths of two lone silverback mountain gorillas, a highly endangered species.

They were unable to recover the body of the first gorilla, reported to have been killed on January 5. But they recovered parts of a second gorilla, killed on January 11, including its head. The gorilla had an AK-47 bullet in its eye.

Emmanuel de Merode is the director of the British-based Africa Conservation fund, which works with an organization that trains park rangers in the area.

"They were discovered by local people who were living on the rebel side of the front, apparently being fought between government troops and the rebel soldiers of Laurent Nkunda. These members of the local community then contacted wildlife authorities," he explained.

A local team, consisting of park rangers and international conservationists, say they then worked with U.N. peacekeepers to gain access to the rebel-controlled area to investigate the deaths.

De Merode says that, although the gorillas appear to have been eaten, this was not the only reason they were killed.

"What we suspect is that it is a combination of killing the gorilla for meat and simply vandalism," he said. "These rebel soldiers use terror against the civilian population as a weapon of war and the gorillas were in the crosshairs."

He says that he fears other gorillas have been killed without being discovered.

Mountain gorillas are a critically endangered species. Only about 700 remain in the wild. More than half of these live in the Virunga Volcanoes Conservation Area, where the two gorillas were reported killed. This area covers territory in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

Congo has long been divided by civil war, fought between the government and many rebel factions. The eastern Congo region where the gorillas were found is currently under the control of forces led by rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

Despite optimism elsewhere in Congo, following the first transparent elections in decades, the situation in eastern Congo remains dire.