VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Congo — Deep in the rebel-held forests of Congo's mighty Mikeno volcano, a world away from this Central African nation's latest fighting, a wild 440-pound mountain gorilla serenely rips a meal of bamboo stalks from the moist dark earth.
His pregnant "wife" dangles from a moss-strewn treetop. Nearby, another gentle ape waddles on all-fours among luminescent green foliage, a 3-month-old baby riding precariously on her back's velvety black fur coat.
The primordial scenes are a rare window into the lives of some of the world's last mountain gorillas. They unfold in a habitat on the edge of a war zone that until now has been overseen by renegade rangers who stayed behind when rebels seized control of these jungle foothills in late 2007.
Now, a breakthrough deal between the insurgents and President Joseph Kabila's administration has paved the way for staff who fled fighting and the rebel occupation to return to the gorilla sector of Virunga National Park for the first time in 15 months.
On Tuesday, a team of Associated Press journalists visited the gorillas in the rebel-controlled zone. The same day, in another part of the park, rangers and scientists from the Congolese Wildlife Authority entered the apes' habitat for the first time since fleeing last year. They found one gorilla family — kicking off a monthlong census that will give the world its first comprehensive glimpse at the status and health of the highly endangered animals since it fell to rebels.
"We are extremely pleased that all sides in this conflict accept the importance of protecting Virunga's gorilla sector," said Emmanuel de Merode, the park's Belgian director and the man who pushed the breakthrough deal. "The survey will give us an accurate assessment of Congo's mountain gorillas and how they have been affected by the war."
Congo has grabbed world headlines in recent weeks because of fighting that exploded in August between government forces and Laurent Nkunda's rebels, unleashing a humanitarian catastrophe that forced more than 250,000 people from their homes.
Ironically, the latest clashes may have been a good thing for the gorillas. Previously, the frontline had run right through the middle of the apes' habitat. But in October, rebels pushed the frontline dozens of miles away, essentially making the area safer for the animals.
Over the last year, government forces had repeatedly set up mortars and multiple rocket launchers on a main road — now controlled by rebels — that cut through the park, firing them toward rebel positions in the hills. An Associated Press reporter who visited the area at the time saw plumes of smoke rising from Mikeno's forested slopes, not far from where the apes live.
"They were firing bombs into the park, destroying the forest and the gorillas' natural habitat," said Pierre-Canisius Kanamahalagi, who was identified as being in charge of park affairs for the rebels.
Only about 700 mountain gorillas are left in the world, an estimated 190 of them in Congo around the Mikeno volcano.
Over the past year, conservationists and park authorities have expressed fear for the animals' safety, saying nobody knew their fate. But the rangers who stayed behind tell a different story.
"It's a myth that nobody knew what was happening to them," said Benjamin Nsana, a 40-year-old park guide in the rebel zone who has worked with the gorillas for 15 years. "We were here all along. We've been sending rangers out every single day" to track seven gorilla families that had grown accustomed to human contact.
Nsana said no gorillas had died over the last year — from poaching, disease, crossfire or anything else. The area was safe, he said, because rebels patrolled the park's outskirts so thoroughly. In fact, he said, six babies have been born.
Kanamahalagi and the dozens of rangers who remained behind say they did so because they were genuinely concerned about the apes' fate and have been misidentified as rebels or "rebel rangers" by park staff who fled. Kanamahalagi asked simply: "If we hadn't stayed, who would have?"
Politics, though, undoubtedly played a role. Most of the "renegade" rangers are sympathetic to the rebels and many are Tutsis like Nkunda, the rebel leader. Many of the more than 120 who fled did so either because they feared insecurity or because they opposed the rebels.
Still, de Merode lauded the rangers who stayed and both groups say they welcome the prospect of working with each other again.
Kanamahalagi said they need help. The rangers working in insurgent territory have done their jobs with little compensation beyond $10 monthly allowances from a conservation group and sacks of corn or bean rations from rebel authorities, Nsana said, adding that all their GPS devices were broken. The foot and toes of one tracker were visible through a ripped, dirt-clad boot.
In the months before insurgents first seized the area in 2007, 10 mountain gorillas were killed by unidentified attackers believed to be involved in an illegal multimillion dollar charcoal trade. Five were shot to death in a single massacre and one was eaten and hurled into a pit latrine. It was the apes' bloodiest year since late American researcher Dian Fossey began working in Congo in the mid-1960s.
"It's imperative that these rangers get back into the park," said Samantha Newport, park spokeswoman said. "There is war, poaching, snares, disease. It's imperative that people have a clue what is going on, that the gorillas are properly looked after."
Unable to enter the gorilla sector, park authorities have decried what they described as unauthorized tourist visits offered by rangers in the rebel zone, worrying they were not following standard rules and might endanger the animals.
Nsana said there had not been many tourists in the rebel zone — only 45 this year, most from Uganda.
De Merode, the Belgian park chief, secured the deal after meeting last week with top officials in the capital of Kinshasa, as well as Nkunda. The deal marks an unusual crossroads because the government-run Congolese Wildlife Conservation Society, which is supposed to manage the park, will essentially be a government entity operating within a rebel-controlled zone.
De Merode said he has continually stressed the Conservation Authority's neutrality and the park's status as a U.N. World Heritage Site.
"Our agenda is simply to manage the park and protect the animals inside it," said de Merode, who became head of the park in August, just as the latest fighting exploded.
High up in the forested foothills of Mikeno, a family of eight gorillas Tuesday showed no sign of hostility toward the visiting humans, whose species has nearly wiped them out, or the three rangers carrying weapons.
"You see it's safe for them here," Nsana whispered. "No fighting. No problem."
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