In the eastern DRC, park rangers have completed an offensive against illegal charcoal-making operations run by armed militias.
The armed groups include the Hutu FDLR, which is accused of attacking and looting villages and killing civilians. But members of the FDLR also took part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide before fleeing into what was then Zaire.
The Congolese National Park authorities say the raids have struck charcoal kiln sites deep within the forests of the Virunga National Park, which generates millions of dollars annually.
Park Director Emmanuel de Merode says there were several reasons for the crackdown.
"First…is that they're extremely destructive to the forests of the national park. And these forests are extremely important to a number of species, including the mountain gorillas. And it's the last population of mountain gorillas in Congo," he says.
Militias making money
The UN Group of Experts on the DRC issued a report on the financial aspects of the illegal operations.
"The charcoal trafficking…is an extremely lucrative business. It has an annual turnover of over $30 million. And much of those revenues are going to the armed groups. And these armed groups are responsible for the instability in the eastern Congo, which has been an extremely serious problem for over 15 years," he says.
An estimated five million civilians died in the conflict during that time.
Small but effective
De Merode says as far as military-type offenses go, the operation was relatively small.
"It only involved five platoons of 30 rangers. That's 150 rangers altogether. But it was very well supported. It was planned over a long period of time and so it was relatively effective," he says.
Over 250 charcoal kilns, worth about $360,000, were destroyed; and there were 57 arrests, including one militia officer. "It's the biggest operation we've ever led," says De Merode.
Killed in the line of duty
The rangers and militia members have clashed on several occasions over recent years.
"As part of this operation there were three armed contacts in the forest between these militias and our rangers. There was also a retaliatory attack on our patrol post on the edge of the park where the FDLR burned down part of the patrol post," he says.
Over the last 10 years, some 130 park rangers have been killed while cracking down on poachers, illegal miners and rebels.
Virunga is Africa's oldest national park, established in 1925.
Many thousands of animals killed
"It's also the park that has the highest number of species of birds, mammals and reptiles for any park in Africa. It's very well known…that it has three types of great apes – the mountain gorillas…lowland gorillas and chimpanzees," he says.
Hippo and elephant populations have been decimated by armed groups and poachers.
"The hippo population …used to be the most important hippo population in the world – over 30,000 hippos in the park. Now there are less than 300. Likewise for the elephant populations," he says.
But the tide is turning in favor of the rangers.
"Now, slowly, slowly, they're
beginning to gain ground, particularly on the armed groups, who are in the
park," he says.