By Joe Bavier
Police arrested the previous Congolese head of the huge Virunga National Park, Honore Mashangiro, in March on charges including involvement in a charcoal trafficking ring linked to the killings of seven endangered mountain gorillas.
Congo's wildlife authority appointed Emmanuel de Merode, a conservationist and descendent of a leader of Belgium's 19th century independence war, as the new head of the 790,000-hectare (2 million acre) park, where clashes with armed groups and poachers have killed 120 rangers in the past decade.
"Congo wants to preserve its protected spaces. It needs the best expertise. If that expertise comes from outside, I don't see why we should be reticent. We don't have any hang ups in that respect," Environment Minister Jose Endundu said on Friday.
Virunga, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the world's largest population of the mountain gorillas, was created in 1925 under Belgian rule, one of continent's most brutal colonial regimes.
Large parts of the park, located along Congo's eastern border in violence-ravaged North Kivu province, are still occupied by armed rebels despite the official end of a 1998-2003 war that killed an estimated 5.4 million people.
"I'm under no illusion over how difficult it is. The glimmer of hope is that we have a very strong team of rangers on the ground," de Merode, who has worked on conservation projects in the park since 2001, told Reuters.
Only 700 mountain gorillas are believed to survive in the wild today. An estimated 380 of those live in eastern Congo.
(Editing by Alistair Thomson and Mary Gabriel)