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In Congo, refuge is a fragile one for gorillas

Andre Bauma rolls in the grass with a young mountain gorilla, Ndakasi. He hugs the hulking hairy creature whom he thinks of as his own child, and slaps her chest affectionately.

The young orphan is part of park ranger Bauma's second family at the Senkwekwe Center for gorilla orphans in 3,000-square-mile Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, where about a quarter of the world's estimated 880 surviving wild mountain gorillas reside.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post said that besides Ndakasi's mother, seven other Virunga mountain gorillas were shot dead in mid-2007. Six other Virunga mountain gorillas were killed.

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"I love these gorillas, yeah, and I'd like to just stay with them forever," he says.

Ndakasi was 2 months old when Bauma found her clinging to her mother, who'd been shot through the head. Besides the mother, six other Virunga mountain gorillas were shot dead with automatic weapons in mid-2007. The assailants were never found, but they were believed connected to the illegal charcoal trade.

"I felt in my heart that we have to save those babies. This is our job, but it came from my heart," says Bauma.

Bauma behaved like a parent with Ndakasi, sleeping in the same bed with her.

"We have to show them they are not orphans, they are in the family. That's why we have to play with them, to give them food, to sleep together; and they must know they have everything they need."

Spanning volcanic lava craters, snowcapped mountains, tropical rainforest, misty lakes and sweeping African savanna, Virunga National Park is both the oldest in Africa, designated in 1925, and the largest. It remains home to more species of animals and plants than any other park in Africa.

But the gorillas here, who reside in what has been one of the world's worst war zones and most corrupt regions, have been on the brink of extinction for years. Threats have included rebel militias; the lucrative charcoal trade, which destroys their habitat; and, over the last two years, a high-stakes proposal to begin exploring for oil in one of the world's most remarkable animal reserves.

The British-based oil firm SOCO carried out seismic tests in Virunga in 2014, touching off an international outcry over possible damage to the UNESCO World Heritage site. After blistering international criticism, the company said in March that it would have no further involvement with an oil concession in the park.

But the issue may not be over. Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo says the government still hopes to negotiate with UNESCO to "judiciously" explore for oil and "reap the profit of its resources to benefit the people who live there."

In recent years, the threats to Virunga's animals and those who care for them seem to have come mainly not from the oil industry, but from the poaching trade and the chaos of civil war.

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The famed gorillas have been picked off — and so have the rangers.

In the last two decades, 140 park rangers have been killed by various encroachers, park officials say.

Park director Emmanuel de Merode nearly joined the list himself last year when he was shot by unknown gunmen.

"It's not just the mountain gorillas. We've also got lowland gorillas and chimpanzees, so it's the only park in the world that has three types of great apes. And given how vulnerable they are and how endangered they are, that makes Virunga extremely important from a conservation perspective," De Merode says.

Virunga's rangers, charged with enforcing the laws on poaching, often come into conflict with poor farmers and fishermen.

"We have a big problem in this area, for the conservation of this park," Bauma says. "There is the poaching. People like to hunt in the park. People like to do illegal fishing. People like to exploit natural resources."

The rangers have also had to try to fend off armed rebels. Innocent Mburanumwe lost his brother, a fellow ranger, in fighting.

"He died in 1997 when the war started," Mburanumwe says. "He was caught by an armed group. He was killed by them."

Rebel militias benefit from the charcoal trade, worth $35 million a year, in which ancient trees are chopped up to make fuel for cooking fires.

"The problem we have in Congo is that people are not very educated about the conservation of nature," says Bauma. "We need to educate the future generation."

The rangers see their mission not just as protecting the mountain gorillas and other species, but also teaching Congolese to value the park for its wildlife and to see its potential to generate jobs through tourism and sustainable projects such as small hydroelectric plants.

Fears for Virunga have attracted the support of heavy hitters including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, British naturalist David Attenborough, businessman Richard Branson and former President Clinton.

"Virunga National Park, it's a kind of hope for everybody, because we are working in a true way. We are fighting against corruption," says Mburanumwe. "I am hoping that in the future, Virunga will be providing many jobs for the community. In the future, Virunga will be helping our kids."

"We know we have many enemies," Bauma says. "But we have to struggle because if we are weak, the enemy will destroy the park."

Times staff photographer Falkenberg reported from Rumangabo while on a journalism fellowship with the International Women's Media Foundation. Times staff writer Dixon reported from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Twitter: @KatieFalkenber and @RobynDixon_LAT

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