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KINSHASA (Reuters) - United Nations peacekeepers in Congo have used helicopters to airlift endangered baby gorillas to a sanctuary after they were rescued in a conflict zone where they faced being captured or eaten.
The animals ferried to safety are eastern lowland gorillas, a species that only lives in Democratic Republic of Congo and is classified as "endangered" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) red list.
The four gorillas, which had been rescued from traffickers in various parts of Congo's rebel-infested east, were flown by helicopter on Tuesday from Goma to the Kasugho Sanctuary in North Kivu province.
"If you use vehicles, there is a great risk of losing the animals because they are traumatized. We used aircraft because we really wanted to reduce their stress level," Benoit Kisuki, Conservation International's country director, told Reuters.
Kisuki said the air transfer was part of a wider project to combat the illegal trade in baby gorillas, which has intensified in recent years with the proliferation of armed groups and constant insecurity in eastern Congo.
"The objective is to reintroduce them in their natural environment," he added.
The gorillas are often caught, trafficked and sold for thousands of dollars on the world market as exotic pets. Others are killed and sold locally as "bush meat."
The research center in Kasugho has developed a two-hectare (4.9 acre) area where scientists can monitor young gorillas as they prepare to be released into the wild.
Six other individuals, currently under protection in Rwanda, are due to be flown in on June 10 to "socialize" with the first group and "form a family of 10," Kisuki said.
The gorillas could be a valuable asset for the future economic development of east Congo, after the animals became a major tourist attraction in Uganda and Rwanda, raising several million dollars in revenues.
There is no accurate data for eastern lowland gorilla populations. But Congo's gorillas have weathered years of warfare in the east and more than 150 rangers have been killed trying to protect the area's five national parks from poachers.
A U.N.-backed report last month said gorillas may become near-extinct in Africa's Greater Congo Basin by the mid-2020s unless action is taken to stop poaching and protect their habitat.
Editing by Tim Cocks, David Lewis and Mark Trevelyan