Kinshasa - The continued presence of armed groups in the restive eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is hampering efforts to protect dwindling numbers of highly endangered great apes in one their few remaining habitats, conservationists warn.

While the DRC's last cycle of civil war officially ended in 2003, militia fighters and Rwandan Hutu rebels in the dense forests of the east are threatening the survival of primates with sporadic clashes and encroachment.

"The presence of foreign rebel groups in eastern Congo is now causing insecurity and stopping us from carrying out censuses and protecting endangered species like the gorilla," said Benoit Kisuki, of the Congo Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

The huge central African nation, which is currently hosting an international conference on saving primates from feared imminent extinction, is home to three of the four world's great apes: gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos - pygmy chimps whose population has been decimated over the past 15 years.

The population of bonobos, which are unique to the DRC, has plummeted from an estimated 100 000 in 1988 to just 10 000 today, according to Friends of Bonobos, a Kinshasa-based conservation group.

Conservationists blame deadly cycles of conflict that have engulfed the DRC and surrounding country's in Africa's Great Lakes region as the primary cause for the shrinking great ape habitat.

At the height of the wars, the fighting not only disrupted the placid lives of the apes, killed them or placed them at risk of the bushmeat industry but sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing into national parks in the east.

"In Virunga park, more than 15 000 hectares of forest was cleared by 30 000 refugees, including Rwandans, who fled the 1994 genocide," Kisuki said.

"The conflicts also encouraged the illegal exploitation of natural resources and arms trafficking that fuels poaching," he added.

The Virunga National Park, which covers more than 8 000 square kilometres, straddles the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda and the rebel presence in that area continues to drive gorillas from the forests, said Jean-Claude Kyungu, a researcher at the park.

In addition, unfettered poaching in the DRC forests has intensified the threat despite a takeover of the forests by the army, said Paulin Ngobobo, a scientist with a gorilla conservation group in the DRC.

According to the ICCN, which is in charge of DRC's 200 000 square kilometres of reserves, an area the size of Uganda, conservation efforts are crippled by lack of qualified personnel.

In addition, park wardens are not armed, further denting their efficiency.

"We do not have a deterrent force," Kisuki said. "Our weakness is also the weakness of Congo government, which is in the middle of reconstruction after years of war."

He, however, expressed hope that the great apes conference that winds up on Friday, would put the DRC's conservation hurdles on the world map.

The conference has gathered representatives from the 23 so-called "great ape range states" and wildlife experts in Kinshasa to consider a raft of proposals for ensuring the survival of the primates.

It is the first at governmental level of the UN-backed Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP), an ambitious scheme launched in Paris in 2003 to sustain and begin to boost their dwindling populations by 2010.

Pressure from disease, war, deforestation and the bushmeat trade, have pushed the "great apes" - highland and lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos in Africa and orangutans in southeast Asia - to the verge of extinction with experts predicting their complete demise by 2055 unless urgent action is taken. - Sapa-AFP