Mai Mai militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo have attacked a guard post in Congo’s Virunga National Park, killing one ranger and wounding another.Thursday’s raid on the park station of Mulango ya Nyama close to Mount Tshiaberimu took place near the home of an isolated population of 18 eastern lowland gorillas, once amajor tourist attraction in the upper end of the park. It is in an area further north of the North Kivu province fighting that has involved rebel leader Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP forces and the Congolese army, but is subject to periodic land grabs by the marauding surrounding population. The park employs some 600 staff in conservation work, and park director Emmanuel de Merode says that slain ranger Kakule Safari was a valiant defender of the park’s endangered living treasures.
“Kakule Safari was a good person, and he was a father.He had three children and a wife.He was a gentle person, and he was deeply dedicated to his work.He worked alone with gorillas for several years.He was also a capable, intelligent ranger.He had come up through the ranks and was training as a para-veterinarian.And we really felt he had an important role to play in the future of those gorillas,” said de Merode.
The nighttime raid by Mai Mai was unexpected and targeted six rangers manning a park watch station.De Merode says the staff fought off the attackers courageously and took one of the band prisoner.But in the process, he says the defenders lost a valued colleague.
“They actually managed to capture one of the Mai Mai officers, who has been arrested and is now detained in Butembo Prison.So it was extremely unexpected and extremely violent. They fought very hard even though they were far outnumbered,” he noted.
The vast Virunga reserve, which spans much of the length of the eastern DRC with Rwanda and Uganda, has been subjected to an unrelenting disruption of its recreational and educational tourism due to unpredictable flashpoints of aggression by a broad mixture of armies, local militias, and rebel forces caught up in a conflict that is being fueled by an unrestrained flow of weapons and money.Emmanuel de Merode’s official base of operations is near the southern end of the park, near the city of Goma.But he says menacing situations have occurred throughout the park, with the latest bloodshed transpiring further to the north.
“There’s been heavy fighting between government forces and CNDP, that’s Laurent Nkunda’s rebels, but also heavy fighting between the CNDP and Mai Mai and SDLR (Rwandan expatriate Hutu forces), so it’s a complicated picture.It was very intense fighting across much of the park.The incident last week was quite a long way further north,” he says.
The security situation in the park has become so precarious that the park director says his large staff of conservationists, park rangers, and their immediate families have had to become IDPs – internally displaced persons.
“Most of our activities have been badly unsettled by the fighting.We’ve got about half of all of our staff, that’s over 300 people – over 15-hundred people, if you include their families – currently in internally displaced camps in the park.So the situation’s extremely bad at the moment,” he observed.
Regrettably, because of the official, government-backed nature of their work, the Congolese Wildlife Authority park rangers and their families do not meet the same kind of refugee status as other dislodged civilians in the country, who are entitled to the limited government and NGO services and attention.De Merode, who also heads the international Wildlife Direct conservation group, says his staff is bravely trying to live through these particularly rough times.
“We’ve received some help.But on the one hand, we’ve had one problem,
which is that the national park authority are a law enforcement agency.And so often, we are not allowed to have aid
and the beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance.There’s a real problem there.We’ve received some support from the general
public, from conservation groups, but it’s quite limited,” he pointed out.