Luanne Cadd / Virunga National Park
A rescued 9-month-old gorilla is fed at Virunga National Park's Gorilla Orphan Sactuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Two orphaned baby gorillas rescued in Congo were being cared for Tuesday by national park staff who fear their plight might signal a new escalation of wildlife smuggling by rebel groups fighting each other and Congo's army.
"In the areas where rebel activity has escalated, poaching has also escalated," LuAnne Cadd, a spokeswoman for Virunga National Park, told NBC News.
It's not just gorillas, either. "Elephant poaching has increased in Virunga's central sector," Cadd said.
The rescued infants — 4- and 9-month-old females — are Grauer's gorillas, a species also known as eastern lowland gorillas and closely related to the more famous mountain gorillas.
"Baby gorilla trafficking is terribly damaging for endangered gorilla populations because many members of the gorilla's family will probably have been killed to obtain the infant," Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, said in a statement.
As for Virunga's mountain gorillas, Cadd said it is not known how they're faring. "We haven't been able to monitor this area yet," she said.
Luanne Cadd / Virunga National Park
The 4-month-old gorilla rescued in the Democratic Republic of Congo opens wide for feeding time at Virunga National Park's Gorilla Orphan Sactuary.
The new rescues raises to 10 the number of Grauer's gorilla orphans confiscated in Congo over the last four years, Virunga National Park said.
The 9-month-old was turned over to Virunga on Sept. 13 by a local conservation group, which said it got the infant from an armed group.
The 4-month-old was rescued on Sept. 20 during a sting operation that led to the arrest of two men, who said they acquired the gorilla in an area where armed groups are vying for control over mines. Those men face trial and, possibly, a life sentence if convicted.
NBC News reported last year how baby gorillas can demand tens of thousands of dollars on the international black market,.
Aug. 8, 2011: A baby mountain gorilla is safe with Rwandan authorities after they rescued the endangered animal from poachers. TODAY.com's Dara Brown reports.
The total population of Grauer's gorillas, which exist only in eastern Congo, is estimated at fewer than 4,000 — down from an estimated 17,000 in 1995.
Protecting Virunga's wildlife has been deadly: 11 rangers were killed last year in armed confrontations, while so far this year one has been killed and several wounded.
For now, the infants will remain at Virunga's orphan gorilla sanctuary during a three-month quarantine period.
"The two gorillas showed some interest in each other when they first met," Cadd wrote in a Virunga blogpost, "but for the older gorilla, it seems as if she considers the younger one a competition for food and milk, often trying to grab the milk bottle or banana from the younger gorilla, and even throwing a tantrum once when she didn’t get a bottle too.
"The most likely plan" will be to move them to a Congo sanctuary that already has 13 Grauer's gorillas, Cadd said.
"There has been talk about releasing those gorillas into the wild eventually," she said, but added that "it's a bit controversial" due to the uncertainty of their fate back in the wild.
Oil a blessing or curse?
The rescues come as Congo announced that the British firm SOCO has been authorized to explore for oil in Virunga National Park.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1970s, the park is the only place on Earth that boasts all three African great apes in addition to elephants, buffalo, hippos, antelopes, lions, leopards and smaller animals and birds.
The area includes Lake Edward, one of the Central African great lakes used by some 40,000 fishermen.
Hydrocarbons Minister Crispin Atama Tabe told The Associated Press that oil exploitation could help bring security to volatile east Congo.
Mining of the region's massive mineral riches, however, has had the opposite effect with armed groups vying for control.
Moreover, Congo's environment ministry last year suspended oil exploration in an area of Virunga where more than 200 gorillas live. Environment Minister Bavo Nsamputu said he was unable to comment on Monday's news as he had been abroad.
Park officials say Congo's Nature Conservation law protects national parks from any kind of exploitation. That persuaded the French oil group Total to promise last year that it would not exploit the one-third of its concession that falls in Virunga.
SOCO, with 58 percent of its concession in Virunga, argues the law allows "geological research for scientific purposes" and cites
exemptions for "research work, such as sampling materials, digging, excavations, surveying, and all other work that may change the look of the land or vegetation."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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