Ranger arrested in massacre of rare mountain gorillas

March 20, 2008 5:20:19 AM PDT

Honore Mashagiro, a ranger in Congo's Virunga National Park, is the chief suspect in the slaying last summer of 10 gorillas who belonged to a group known to environmentalists as the Rugendo family.

Mashagiro is accused of arranging the mass killing to deter conservationists who were trying to prevent the destruction of the animals' rainforest habitat, the international conservation group WildlifeDirect said.

Loggers cut down the forest's trees to make charcoal, a lucrative business. "This threatened the gorilla habitat, so when the rangers tried to protect the forest, he allegedly orchestrated the gorilla massacres to discourage them," the group said.

Only about 700 mountain gorillas remain in the world, an estimated 380 of them in the Virunga range. About 100 are believed to live on the Congo side of the border.

Virunga National Park is located in a lawless swath of eastern Congo, bordering Rwanda and Uganda, that the country's government has struggled to bring under control for years. Established in 1925 as Africa's first national park, it was classified as a U.N. World Heritage site in 1979.

WildlifeDirect called the arrest of Mashagiro "a major breakthrough" and said his pending prosecution is "a moment of hope for all of us."

The charges against the ranger were brought by the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute.