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
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.