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Fri Nov 21 18:33:35 SAST 2014

Elephants, latest victims of Congolese unrest, flee to Uganda

Sapa-dpa | 10 November, 2012 09:42
File photo of an elephant.
Image by: Travel Weekly

On a continent where fears of a plunging elephant population are usually high, a sudden upsurge in elephants in Uganda is not being treated as good news.

That's because the additional elephants are not new births, rather refugees fleeing fighting between rebels and government forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. That has forced hundreds of elephants to flee into Uganda, wildlife officials said.

The beasts are "moving from Virunga National Park into (the part of) south-western Uganda that shares the border with the DR Congo," Charles Tumwesigye, the head of protected areas at the state-owned Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), told dpa.

"The elephants move into the Ishasha sector of the park and their population here has increased tremendously," he said, adding that the number of elephants in the area has jumped to 1,200, from about 500, since the beginning of 2012.

The total population of elephants in Uganda's 11 national game parks and wildlife reserves has more than doubled since 1996, to almost 4,400, UWA said.

The conflict has also affected other wild animals, including antelopes. Officials estimate that their number in the Ishasha sector has increased four-fold from 250 to 1,000 during the past 12 years.

Wildlife officials, however, say that the increasing elephant population does not pose a problem because the Ugandan conservation area that the animals flee to is large enough.

"We are not worried about their numbers ... The area is big enough to accommodate them. Even then, if the situation in Congo clears, they will go back," Tumwesigye said.

The animals are caught up in the ongoing fighting in Congo's North Kivu province, mainly in and around the vast Virunga National Park.

Rebels of the group M23, led by renegade army general Bosco Ntaganda, have stepped up attacks against government positions in the area early this year, and have targeted the Virunga park for precious ivory and for game meat.

As a result, hundreds of wild animals have crossed the Ugandan border into the Queen Elizabeth National Park, officials said.

The trouble in eastern DR Congo began in 1994, after militants involved in the Rwandan genocide fled to the region. In 2012 alone, violent conflict has displaced over half a million people within Congo and forced tens of thousands to flee into neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.

According to reports, the UN, in a recent unpublished document, accused Uganda and Rwanda of backing the insurgents, a charge that both countries denied.

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