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Park rangers returning to gorilla refuge

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  • Fighting forced rangers to flee gorilla reserve in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Some of the rangers fled some 14 months ago
  • "Rangers are neutral in this conflict," park official says
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By Joe Sterling
CNN
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(CNN) -- More than 14 months after they fled fighting between rebel and government forces, park rangers who monitor mountain gorillas in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo have returned to the reserve.

A baby rides her mother in Virunga National Park, home to 200 of the world's 700 mountain gorillas.

Young gorillas play in Congo's Virunga National Park in an undated photograph.

It is a welcome sight at Virunga National Park, where around 200 of the world's 700 mountain gorillas live.

Samantha Newport, communications director for the refuge, told CNN on Friday that 70 rangers have returned to the gorilla refuge.

They left when the sector was taken over by Laurent Nkunda's Tutsi armed force, which is fighting Congolese soldiers and their militia allies.

About 50 other rangers who fled after rebels seized the park headquarters last month also have come back, Newport said, and about 150 other rangers will be returning after being away for a month or two.

Around 400 other rangers never left the nearly 8,000-square kilometer park, in which the gorilla reserve encompasses 250 square kilometers, Newport said.

The gorilla section of the park lies in a strategically important area near the borders of Rwanda and Uganda.

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Newport said Nkunda's rebels still control much of the park and the preserve, but efforts have been made by combatants to protect the gorilla refuge and not interfere with the park rangers' duties.

In a news release, Virunga Park Director Emmanuel de Merode said, "It is a huge step that all sides have agreed that the protection of Virunga as a World Heritage Site and its mountain gorillas is of sufficient priority to transcend political differences."

He added, "Rangers are neutral in this conflict, and it is right that they should be allowed to do their job."

The rangers will be conducting a census of the gorillas.

There were 72 habituated and around 120 non-habituated gorillas in the reserve in August 2007, when the last census was conducted. That number is expected to change because of births and deaths.

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Habituated describes those gorillas who are accustomed to contact with humans, and non-habituated refers to those who are not used to human presence, Newport explained.

Virunga National Park is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site and Africa's oldest national park. It was formerly known as Albert National Park.

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