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

At Khmer Rouge Court, Long-Awaited Verdict Approaches

First phase of trial, which is coming to an end, has focused on forced exodus of Phnom Penh in 1975 - and now many are hopeful justice will be served More

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities More

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

Downing of Malaysian airliner, allegations of cross-border shelling move information war in war-torn country to a new level More

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

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
July 31, 2014 8:13 PM
The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.

AppleAndroid