Park director Emmanuel de Merode introduces Gelareh Darabi to the incredibly diverse 7,800 square kilometre park, which includes the glacier-topped Rwenzori mountains, lowland tropical rainforest and the great savannas of Rwindi, which used to have the highest concentration of large mammals on earth. Within the park's boundaries lie Africa's two most active volcanoes, the Nyamuragira and the neighbouring Nyiragongo.

Two decades of conflict in the DR Congo have not only had a tragic impact on the country's human communities, but also on its wildlife. Many species have been decimated, for example the hippopotamus population, which used to be the largest in the world, fell from 27,000 to 350 individuals. Even today, roaming militia groups and armed poachers are a constant threat. Since 1996, an estimated 140 rangers have lost their lives protecting the park.

Virunga has one of the largest populations of mountain gorillas anywhere in the world. However, these critically-endangered primates remain particularly at risk from poachers and militia groups. The rangers raise and protect orphaned baby gorillas in a purpose-built sanctuary, which was part-funded by the European Union. It is called the Senkwekwe Centre, after a Silverback who was shot at point-blank range in 2007 along with four other members of his family. Two orphans were saved, and today they have a close relationship with their human caretakers.

Gorillas share 98 per cent of our DNA and are vulnerable to many of the same diseases, so for their protection Gelareh has to take stringent hygiene precautions before meeting the orphans at the centre. With fewer than 800 of the animals remaining worldwide, each one of the Senkwekwe Centre residents is hugely important for the survival of the species.

 
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Source: Al Jazeera