updated 6/3/2005 10:57:13 AM ET 2005-06-03T14:57:13

When more than 100 armed militia fighters launched an attack in eastern Congo’s Virunga National Park, guard Bisimwa Kajabika was shot three times in the head as he attempted to protect fleeing colleagues.

Blinded and paralyzed in the assault two years ago, Kajabika is one of 30 park guards and wardens honored late Wednesday by conservation groups for protecting the country’s six national parks — home to endangered gorillas and other game — from bandits and poachers through nearly a decade of war.

“They’re extremely courageous, have a vision and really care. It made sense to recognize them,” said Terese Hart, director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s mission in Congo.

Awards for wardens who died
The Congolese Institute for the Protection of Nature, the Alexander Abraham Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society are also presenting posthumous awards to guards and wardens who’ve been killed, or who have disappeared on duty.

Five awards were handed out late Wednesday to two game wardens, a guard, a local village chief, and the widow of a guard.

The remaining 25 awards — including Kajabika’s — will be distributed at the reserves, all located in eastern Congo.

Messiane Caze, director of the conservation group Alexander Abraham Foundation, commended the recipients for their “bravery to conserve Congo’s biodiversity” despite nearly a decade of war in the country.

Five of Congo’s parks are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Virunga National Park.

The reserves became the front lines of conflict following the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, when millions of fleeing residents and suspected ethnic Hutu rebels sought refuge in Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks near the Rwandan border.

Later, warring militia and rebel groups battled in the area during a devastating 1998-2002 war and firefights in the forests which house gorillas were common.

$40-a-year wages
Gorillas and other endangered game were decimated amid the violence, mostly by illegal mining and poaching.

“These parks have become a theater of war,” said Hart.

Park guards and wardens are paid relatively little for their work: as little as $40 a year.

During the war, the guards and wardens worked with very little or no pay, forming small cooperatives with area villages to protect their land from pillage.

Today, militia continue to prowl the unpoliced reserves, attempting to smuggle timber and minerals from their interiors. Miners and poachers also compete for land, often battling wardens and guards.

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