News / Africa

    Militias Ravage Africa’s Oldest Wildlife Reserve

    Park director Emmanuel de Merode believes Virunga National Park will survive two decades of warfare. The photograph was taken a year before he was ambushed by gunmen.
    Park director Emmanuel de Merode believes Virunga National Park will survive two decades of warfare. The photograph was taken a year before he was ambushed by gunmen.
    William Eagle
    Central Africa is one of the deadliest places in the world and the home of Africa's oldest animal protection area, Virunga National Park. The park's director, Emmanuel de Merode, counts the dead in this eastern Congo reserve by the thousands - gorillas, elephants, hippos – plus more than 150 rangers who died defending the park’s wildlife.

    On April 16, the 53-year-old director was shot four times in the stomach and legs by masked gunmen with automatic rifles. De Merode survived the attack and is back at work. He vows the park -- a 3,000-square-mile reservoir of Africa’s biological diversity and a World Heritage Site -- will recover. And he has had some help.
     
    The Howard G. Buffett Foundation recently paid for a $20 million hydro-electric dam in remote Virunga National Park. The U.S. foundation also gave another sum to hire 200 new rangers to protect the park’s gorillas and safeguard a handful of weekly tourists who recently re-opened the park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
     
    The help came just in time. 
     
    Emmanuel de Merode discusses Virunga's battle for survival
    Emmanuel de Merode discusses Virunga's battle for survivali
    || 0:00:00
    ...    
     
    X

    The problem is bigger than the park
     
    De Merode says thousands of elephants and hippos there have died during 20 years of armed conflict in eastern Congo. Most of the poaching has been conducted by state-less armed militias he calls terrorists.  Over the last three years, they’ve killed 20 rangers who died defending the wildlife.
     
    But the problem, he says, is greater than the fate of thousands of animals or the rangers who defend them: the armed gangs have caused the deaths of more than five million civilians. Militias have wrecked the struggling economy of the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the park’s director says the wildlife were a key to regional economic development.
     
    • An afternoon shower rolls over Africa's oldest wildlife reserve, Virunga National Park. Two decades of Central African politics and armed militias taken the lives of thousands of civilians, elephants and hippos, and more than 150 of the park's game wardens.
       
    • Virunga's game wardens protect small groups of tourists who enter to observe the park's endangered mountain gorillas. A Howard Buffett Foundation grant recently added 200 wardens to re-open a small portion of the park for gorilla tourism.
    • Virunga once harbored the world's largest population of hippopotamus. Numbers plummeted from 27,000 to 350, largely because poachers sell their mammoth teeth as ivory to unsuspecting buyers. These hippos were photographed on the Rutchuru River last year. (Courtesy World Wildlife Fund)
    • The director of Virunga National Park, Emmanuel de Merode, recently recovered from being shot four times in the chest by gunmen. He believes the park will be central to the economic recovery of the entire region which has been devastated by two decades of militia violence. He posed in the park in 2013 for this photograph.
    • Virunga rangers play a traditional board game between park duties in 2007. Their primary responsibilities are protecting the wildlife. Twenty have been killed in confrontations with poachers and militias in the last three years.
    • Tours to track mountain gorillas were a major attraction at Virunga until the park closed in 2012. Tourism has re-opened with the addition of more than 200 rangers and reduced armed conflict in the area.
    • Local communities around the park responded to the threat of outside militias by forming their own small armies called Mai Mai. They often recruit child soldiers at checkpoints such as this one near Goma in 1997.
    • A truckload of rebel supporters of Laurent Nkunda drove through the park on a November day in 2008. Nkunda is a former Democratic Republic of Congo general whose miltias support Tutsi interests in the region.
    • Luxury tourist quarters built during the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko that were destroyed and abandoned in earlier violence now serve as housing for some militias. The park's bullet-riddled welcome sign indicates the park's former name.

    “It’s been a very difficult period for the wildlife in Virunga,” he says. “The hippo population has experienced a devastating crash in numbers. The elephant are mostly similar. Numbers fell from 2,700 in the late 70s to about 300 in 2005. It’s been extremely difficult for us to prevent poaching among the few elephants that are left.”
     
    Virunga’s hippos are a larger and largely unheralded tragedy in the park. They have neither tusks nor horns, but enterprising poachers and the traders who buy and sell them have discovered they can sell the two-foot-long teeth of the hippo by calling them pieces of an elephant tusk. Consumers don’t know the difference, says de Merode.
     
    “The hippos are an important example because Virunga used to have the biggest population of hippos in the world. There were 27-thousand in Virunga, and that was almost 20 percent of the world’s hippos in the 1970s. This number has dropped to about 350 in 2005. That’s a drop of almost 99 percent.”
     
    Not just animals and rangers
     
    De Merode says more than 150 rangers have died protecting the park; 20 in the last three years. They are, he says, heroes.
     
    “But in considering those numbers, it’s also important to consider the overall numbers of devastation that has been caused by the armed militias and also the sequence of armed conflicts in the last 20 years in eastern Congo which has provoked the deaths of more than five million civilians. So, all this has to be taken in the context of an overall terrible tragedy that has affected the region.”
     
    Two decades of conflict may be slowly winding down in eastern Congo. Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo last year defeated a major armed insurgency, the M23. They also say they are closing in on the Islamist forces of the ADF-NALU, a militia who are opposed to the Ugandan government.
     
    De Merode lists another dozen armed militias who prey on Virunga such as the Mai Mai and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. They’re the remnants of the irregular Interahamwe forces that began the Rwandan genocide that led to the deaths of about 800,000 people in 1994.
     
    World leaders now talk of a global war against wildlife poaching that fuels these terrorist activities in Virunga and more than 45 other parks in Africa.
     
    Give us the basics, not the drones
     
    De Merode applauds the global meetings in London and Washington but he’s skeptical that declarations – drones or not - in far-away capitals of the world will produce practical measures in Africa’s remote parks.
     
    “Until we can get past the situation where the ranger on the ground is unable to secure a basic salary that takes him or here above the poverty line and get the training and ability to prevent them from getting killed by armed militias who are better equipped than they are.
     
    “It would be a wise approach to address the problems at the source," says De Merode. "For there to be armed militias you need two things: one is a fragile state that is unable to uphold the rule of law and the other is a very strong incentive for the armed militias to form. And, of course, that incentive is tied to the natural wealth of this region of which the wildlife is a part.
     
    “In protecting the wildlife you are directly strengthening the government institutions in the region, and you are also preventing militias from making significant profits from the resources of eastern Congo. It’s a very key part to restoring peace in the region.”
     
    Can Virunga be saved?
     
    The 200 new rangers and a hydro-electric dam on the park’s Rutshuru River in Virunga are the launch of economic recovery for the park and the region, says de Merode. He says the park’s survival depends in the long term on the well-being of its destitute neighbors.

    “It’s very important to recognize and address the fact that all these problems are inter-linked. The terrible human tragedy is linked to the fact that that there is a breakdown of the rule of law.  [This] makes the area attractive to armed militias and it’s attracted to them because they can make significant profits from the illegal extraction of natural resources and, of course, poaching is one component of that problem.”
     
    The dam will provide electricity for small businesses and for agriculture to reduce the overwhelming poverty of the area. If the dam provides adequate energy, De Merode says it can generate an estimated 12,000 agricultural jobs for those who live outside the park – while revenues from the sale of electricity pay for maintaining the park and its wildlife.

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    Clinton, Sanders Fight for African American Votes

    Some African American lawmakers lining up to support Clinton in face of perceived surge by Sanders in race for Democratic nomination in presidential campaign

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.