The number of mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park has increased despite the war being waged in and around the area, according to the first count in 16 months.

The count showed that the number of gorillas in groups habituated to humans � considered most at risk in the conflict � had increased to 81, compared to a count of 72 in 2007.

Park rangers were kicked out of the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park, where six groups of habituated mountain gorillas live, in September 2007 by forces loyal to the ex-rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. Fifteen months passed without any rangers being able to monitor the mountain gorillas but in December 2008 Virunga National Park director, Emmanuel de Merode successfully negotiated with the CNDP rebel group to allow park rangers access the Mikeno sector and resume monitoring of the area.

ICCN, the government institution in charge of protected areas management in Virunga National Park has since been fully operational and ICCN rangers have just completed a census of the habituated mountain gorillas. To their surprise, they discovered that the populations of all of the groups have increased.

"Habituated mountain gorillas aren't afraid of humans, which makes them particularly vulnerable to danger," said Marc Languy, of WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Programme. "We are relieved to see that instead of fewer gorillas, which we had feared, there are actually several more animals." While on a five day patrol during which they were looking for and counting mountain gorillas, two ICCN patrols removed more than 400 snares placed by poachers targeting small forest antelopes that can harm and maim gorillas.

"This clearly indicates that conservation efforts must continue to save mountain gorillas which remain threatened, despite the good news brought by the latest count," Languy said. There is currently a cease fire between CNDP and the Congolese Army who have joined up with Rwandan forces to fight FDLR rebels; however, the rangers still have conflict and violence to contend with. On 8 January a ranger was killed during an attack by Ma� Ma� militia against an ICCN Patrol Post and another ranger was kidnapped.

"This astonishingly good news about the mountain gorillas is possible thanks to the courageous efforts of ICCN rangers who worked tirelessly to gain access to the gorillas despite on-going violence," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF International's Species Programme.

"WWF will continue to provide ICCN with the support it needs to keep a vigilant eye on mountain gorillas as conflict and poaching are still imminent threats." ICCN has been able to keep its operations running during the conflict with financial and technical support from International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a joint initiative of AWF (African Wildlife Foundation), FFI (Flora and Fauna International), and WWF and other conservation partners on the ground.