MIKENO, EASTERN DR CONGO, July 24, 2007: Local villagers help to dress and evacuate the body of a female, lactating mountain gorilla who has been shot multiple times by AK47 rounds. It is believed that her baby has been taken and it has never been recovered. She is one of 7 mountain gorillas shot by an armed group on this day. Mountain Gorillas are extremely rare, with just over 700 in the world today. They exist in the Virunga ranges of DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The group in DR Congo numbers just over 300 and their region is occupied by the M23 rebel group, formerly known as CNDP. Despite the conflict in the region, the gorillas remain, a fragile, threatened group that also have poachers and human encroachment to fear. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.)
Local villagers help to dress and evacuate the body of a female lactating mountain gorilla who has been shot multiple times by AK47 rounds. It is believed that her baby has been taken and it has never been recovered. She is one of 7 mountain gorillas shot by an armed group on this day. Mountain Gorillas are extremely rare, with just over 700 in the world today.Brent Stirton—Reportage by Getty Images
MIKENO, EASTERN DR CONGO, July 24, 2007: Local villagers help to dress and evacuate the body of a female, lactating mountain gorilla who has been shot multiple times by AK47 rounds. It is believed that her baby has been taken and it has never been recovered. She is one of 7 mountain gorillas shot by an armed group on this day. Mountain Gorillas are extremely rare, with just over 700 in the world today. They exist in the Virunga ranges of DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The group in DR Congo numbers just over 300 and their region is occupied by the M23 rebel group, formerly known as CNDP. Despite the conflict in the region, the gorillas remain, a fragile, threatened group that also have poachers and human encroachment to fear. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.)
MIKENO, EASTERN DR CONGO, 8 APRIL 2009: An M23 rebel soldier stands guard in Mikeno, the volcanic mountain gorilla sector of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mountain Gorillas are extremely rare, with just over 700 in the world today. They exist in the Virunga ranges of DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The group in DR Congo numbers just over 300 and their region is occupied by the M23 rebel group, formerly known as CNDP. Despite the conflict in the region, the gorillas remain, a fragile, threatened group that also have poachers and human encroachment to fear. Today, in 2013, M23 continues to occupy this sector, and are involved in regular clashes with the Congolese army, involving artillery, tank fire and rocket fire in the gorilla sector. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, NORTH KIVU, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO-NOVEMBER 2008: M23 rebels, North Kivu, D.R.C, 23 November 2008. The Gorilla Sector of Virunga National Park has been occupied by the rebel movement CNDP under rebel Congolese Tutsi Generals since 2007. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, EASTERN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, MARCH 2012: Andre, 39, a self described "gorilla mother" looks after 4 orphaned gorillas who were rescued from various horrific circumstances and brought into care by the staff of Virunga National Park, DRC, 2 March 2012. Andre thinks of these gorillas as his own children and even describes bringing his children to see them as showing them their brothers and sisters. Andre lives with the Gorillas 24/7 with the exception of a few days off to visit his own family. Andre is an ICCN Congolese Conservation ranger and has cared for orphaned and rescued gorillas since 2003. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 4 OCTOBER 2008: Orphaned mountain gorilla Ndkasi and her ICCN conservation ranger care-giver Baboo play in the make-shift gorilla orphanage in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, 4 October 2008. At this time, the make-shift facility was noisy and dusty, the opposite of the natural environment of the mountain gorilla sector of the Park. The care-giver lives and sleeps in the same space with the orphan in 3 weeks shifts, 24/7, with one week off a month to see his family. Ndkasi's mother was killed in order to secure the Gorilla baby by poachers. The poachers had hoped to sell the baby but were caught in a sting by ICCN conservation rangers. Mountain Gorillas are extremely endangered and exist in a small region of the Virunga mountains on the border of DR Congo and Rwanda with a small family in Uganda. Today, the Senkekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage has been built inside the headquarters of the ICCN at Rumangabo, about 50 kilometers outside of Goma, that facility houses 5 orphans including the latest orphan Ihirwe. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, EASTERN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, MARCH 2012: Andre, 39, a self described "gorilla mother" looks after 4 orphaned gorillas who were rescued from various horrific circumstances and brought into care by the staff of Virunga National Park, DRC, 2 March 2012. Andre thinks of these gorillas as his own children and even describes bringing his children to see them as showing them their brothers and sisters. Andre lives with the Gorillas 24/7 with the exception of a few days off to visit his own family. Andre is an ICCN Congolese Conservation ranger and has cared for orphaned and rescued gorillas since 2003. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
BUKIMA, VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, DRC, 6 AUGUST 2013: Images of the Bageni family in the gorilla sector of Virunga National Park, DRC, 6 August 2013. The gorillas sector is currently occupied by the M23 rebel movement of the Congolese army. Despite this and a previous occupation by a previous rebel group, the gorillas continue to survive, largely due the efforts of the ICCn, the Congolese Conservation Authority. The previous Bukima camps were destroyed, first by the CNDP rebel movement in 2008 and 2009; now most recently by their followers, the M23 rebels. Despite these setbacks and the ongoing danger, the ICCN Congolese conservation rangers continue to protect the mountain gorillas of the region and to plan for tourism which will follow if peace is achieved. (photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, VIRUNGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 7 AUGUST 20013: An early morning view of one of two play fields at Senkekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage as caretakers interact with a new orphan mountain gorilla at ICCN headquarters, Rumangabo, DRC, 7 August 2013. It is suspected that this orphan was taken by soldiers who probably killed the mother to get the baby. When they were unable to sell it, the orphan was abandoned and the conservation rangers heard and rescued it. Wounds from a rope were evident on its chest and back, it is slowly recovering now as it lives full time with caretakers who also sleep in the enclosure with the orphan. There are a number of other orphans at the center who will be introduced to the new baby once it has been through quarantine and is accustomed to its new surroundings. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, VIRUNGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 6 AUGUST 20013: Images from the Senkekwe Orphan Gorilla project as caretakers interact in the early morning with a new orphan mountain gorilla Ihirwe at ICCN headquarters, Rumangabo, DRC, 6 August 2013. It is suspected that this orphan was taken by soldiers who probably killed the mother to get the baby. When they were unable to sell it, the orphan was abandoned and the conservation rangers heard and rescued it. Wounds from a rope were evident on its chest and back, it is slowly recovering now as it lives full time with caretakers who also sleep in the enclosure with the orphan. There are a number of other orphans at the center who will be introduced to the new baby once it has been through quarantine and is accustomed to its new surroundings. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, VIRUNGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 7 AUGUST 20013: The beginning of the day at Senkekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage as caretakers take the temperature of a new orphan mountain gorilla at ICCN headquarters, Rumangabo, DRC, 7 August 2013. It is suspected that this orphan was taken by soldiers who probably killed the mother to get the baby. When they were unable to sell it, the orphan was abandoned and the conservation rangers heard and rescued it. Wounds from a rope were evident on its chest and back, it is slowly recovering now as it lives full time with caretakers who also sleep in the enclosure with the orphan. There are a number of other orphans at the center who will be introduced to the new baby once it has been through quarantine and is accustomed to its new surroundings. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, VIRUNGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 7 AUGUST 20013: The beginning of the day at Senkekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage as caretakers interact with a new orphan mountain gorilla at ICCN headquarters, Rumangabo, DRC, 7 August 2013. It is suspected that this orphan was taken by soldiers who probably killed the mother to get the baby. When they were unable to sell it, the orphan was abandoned and the conservation rangers heard and rescued it. Wounds from a rope were evident on its chest and back, it is slowly recovering now as it lives full time with caretakers who also sleep in the enclosure with the orphan. There are a number of other orphans at the center who will be introduced to the new baby once it has been through quarantine and is accustomed to its new surroundings. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, VIRUNGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 7 AUGUST 20013: The beginning of the day at Senkekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage as caretakers feed and interact with a new orphan mountain gorilla called Ihirwe at ICCN headquarters, Rumangabo, DRC, 7 August 2013. It is suspected that this orphan was taken by soldiers who probably killed the mother to get the baby. When they were unable to sell it, the orphan was abandoned and the conservation rangers heard and rescued it. Wounds from a rope were evident on its chest and back, it is slowly recovering now as it lives full time with caretakers who also sleep in the enclosure with the orphan. There are a number of other orphans at the center who will be introduced to the new baby once it has been through quarantine and is accustomed to its new surroundings. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, VIRUNGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 7 AUGUST 20013: The beginning of the day at Senkekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage as caretaker Baboo teaches  new orphan mountain gorilla to climb at at ICCN headquarters, Rumangabo, DRC, 7 August 2013. It is suspected that this orphan was taken by soldiers who probably killed the mother to get the baby. When they were unable to sell it, the orphan was abandoned and the conservation rangers heard and rescued it. Wounds from a rope were evident on its chest and back, it is slowly recovering now as it lives full time with caretakers who also sleep in the enclosure with the orphan. There are a number of other orphans at the center who will be introduced to the new baby once it has been through quarantine and is accustomed to its new surroundings. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, VIRUNGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 7 AUGUST 20013: The beginning of the day at Senkekwe Mountain Gorilla Orphanage as caretakers interact with a new orphan mountain gorilla at ICCN headquarters, Rumangabo, DRC, 7 August 2013. It is suspected that this orphan was taken by soldiers who probably killed the mother to get the baby. When they were unable to sell it, the orphan was abandoned and the conservation rangers heard and rescued it. Wounds from a rope were evident on its chest and back, it is slowly recovering now as it lives full time with caretakers who also sleep in the enclosure with the orphan. There are a number of other orphans at the center who will be introduced to the new baby once it has been through quarantine and is accustomed to its new surroundings. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
RUMANGABO, VIRUNGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO, 6 AUGUST 20013: Images from the Senkekwe Orphan Gorilla project as caretaker Baboo prepares to go to sleep with a new orphan mountain gorilla Ihirwe at ICCN headquarters, Rumangabo, DRC, 6 August 2013. It is suspected that this orphan was taken by soldiers who probably killed the mother to get the baby. When they were unable to sell it, the orphan was abandoned and the conservation rangers heard and rescued it. Wounds from a rope were evident on its chest and back, it is slowly recovering now as it lives full time with caretakers who also sleep in the enclosure with the orphan. There are a number of other orphans at the center who will be introduced to the new baby once it has been through quarantine and is accustomed to its new surroundings. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for Getty Images.)
Local villagers help to dress and evacuate the body of a female lactating mountain gorilla who has been shot multiple ti
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Brent Stirton—Reportage by Getty Images
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Saving Congo's Gorillas: A Refuge for Species Under Threat

Oct 31, 2013

The genetic difference between a gorilla and a human being is tiny—we share 98.4% of our DNA. But the gorillas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the people who care for them share far more than just genes. Both are victims of an endless war that has ravaged Central Africa, killing humans and gorillas alike.

The fighting—along with the constant threat of poachers, disease and loss of habitat from deforestation—has taken its toll on the already critically endangered population of mountain gorillas in Central Africa. Just about 800 still live in the world today, most in the Virunga mountains, which range through Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The 300 mountain gorillas that live in Congo are particularly vulnerable; their habitat is occupied by the m23 rebel group, which has been carrying out a violent rebellion against the Congolese government. Mountain gorillas have been caught in the cross fire of pitched gun battles and have sometimes been attacked directly by rebels seeking to steal and sell infant gorillas.

That the mountain gorillas of Congo endure at all is a testament to the bravery of the Congolese Conservation Authority (ICCN), which oversees the sprawling country’s embattled parks and nature re- serves. at the Senkwekwe Orphan mountain gorilla Center in Congo’s Virunga National Park, rangers care for the animals, many of which have lost their mothers to poachers or rebel fighters. The center offers a refuge for young mountain gorillas that have been traumatized by the ongoing violence. The gorillas attach themselves to the wardens, who treat the juveniles like their children. This is not a zoo or a research center. It is a refugee camp for primate victims of war.

But even this refuge is under siege. More than 130 rangers have died defending Virunga National Park since 1996. The wardens are often outgunned by rebels, as well as by poachers who seek to capture young gorillas to be sold as pets or butcher older ones for meat. (Bush meat has become increasingly popular in Africa’s swelling cities, and so the number of poachers has grown.) The fighting makes it more difficult for rangers to patrol the park, leaving the gorillas vulnerable. and even if a more lasting peace does come, it could herald a new wave of development in Congo, which could in turn lead to accelerated deforestation and further loss of habitat for the already endangered mountain gorillas. No matter what happens, the odds are against them.

But in the meantime, Senkwekwe serves as an oasis of calm, a place where these animals can be nursed back to health, physically and mentally. As Brent Stirton’s photographs demonstrate, the mountain gorilla is special, its connection to human beings—to us— more than just a matter of shared genes. “Gorillas have something in their soul very close to humans,” says Andre Bauma, a ranger at Virunga National Park and the “father” of a pair of adopted female mountain gorillas. To lose them would be to lose a part of ourselves.

Brent Stirton is a world-renowned Senior Staff photographer for Reportage by Getty Images based in New York. In 2013, he won the Environmental Vision Award from POYI.

Bryan Walsh is a senior editor for TIME International & an environmental writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryanrwalsh.

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