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SOS Rhino : In the News : Congolese awarded for saving apes from militias

Congolese awarded for saving apes from militias

By David Lewis

Thu Jun 2,2005 11:46 AM ET

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congolese park rangers who risked or even lost their lives to save mountain gorillas, pygmy chimpanzees and white rhinos as war raged around them have been honored two years after the conflict officially ended.

More than 40 park guards, bush trackers and local chiefs -- many of whom fought off militia fighters, bandits and poachers in Congo's lawless east -- were presented with the Abraham Conservation Award in Kinshasa late on Wednesday.

"The bravery, dedication and courage of this year's recipients is incredible," U.S. based environmental group the Alexander Abraham Foundation said in its presentation.

Mokilibe Atakuru and Likambo Masikini, two park guards from the remote Garamba National Park on Congo's border with Sudan, were posthumously recognized for their efforts to help to try to save the world's last remaining northern white rhinos living in the wild.

They were both killed in May last year during a gun battle with heavily armed poachers from the Janjaweed militia -- accused of raping and killing in Darfur -- who swept into Congo on horseback from Sudan to hunt down the rhino for their horns.

Attacks on ranger stations and anti-poaching patrols are common in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is renowned for its diverse wildlife but has been at war for most of the last decade.

The vast central African country's forests are the sole habitat of bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, one of humans' closest living relatives which have been pushed to the brink of extinction by fighting, conservationists say.

Although the latest conflict officially ended in 2003, the government is struggling to impose its authority and armed groups still hold sway across vast swathes of the east.

Congo is home to five natural heritage sites and 200,000 square km (77,230 sq miles) -- 8 percent of the country -- is protected land. Since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, millions of refugees have flooded into the country and two wars have broken out, putting pressure on its natural resources. Congo's parks have also had to cope with myriad local militias and rebel groups from neighboring Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.

Virunga National Park, one of Africa's oldest, which lies on the Rwandan border, was one of the most contested areas during Congo's war and is now struggling to survive.

Some 100 rangers have been killed among its lowland forests, open savannahs, snow-capped peaks and volcanoes since 1996.

Norbert Mushenzi, head conservationist in the north of the park, was given an award for 34 years of service, during which he has been arrested and repeatedly attacked by armed groups.

"We will all die one day, but if I die for a noble cause, then I think it's worth it," he told Reuters.

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