Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the 3 parks within the Virunga Mountains that protect the endangered mountain gorillas and many other wildlife species. The other two parks include Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.
Unlike Volcanoes and Mgahinga where the conservation work has been largely going smoothly, protecting wildlife in Virunga comes with a huge cost.
Challenges facing wildlife and conservationists in Virunga National Park
The major threat to both wildlife and those in charge of protecting them is the civil conflict that has resulted into militias attacking and killing animals and rangers in the park. Over the past 12 months, militias have murdered more than 20 of the park’s staff and early this year rebels killed the Italian ambassador to DRC together with his security guard and driver within the park.
Mr. Emmanuel de Merode, who is charge of more than 800 rangers at Virunga National Park narrated to the BBC the ordeal of working in one of the most risky parks in the world. “The level of sacrifice that’s involved in keeping this work going will always be the hardest thing to deal with,” says Merode who has lived in DRC for nearly 30 years but still remembers the day he first arrived.
“I bought a motorbike in Kampala and drove through Uganda into Congo, and as you cross the border you’re immediately struck by the enormity of the park and the incredibly beautiful landscapes,” he narrates.
In April last year, 13 rangers were killed in the park while early this year more 6 rangers who were patrolling the park’s boundary were also killed in an ambush by militias.
“You have to accept that there is risk. It’s a national park which is part of the Congolese state which has been affected by civil war for the most of its recent history,” says Merode who himself was shot and wounded by the militias in the park in 2014.
Achievements amidst turmoil
Despite the turmoil they work through, Mr. Merode points to the park’s achievements in the face of difficulties. “It’s had enormous ups and downs… we’ve suffered enormously, but alongside that is an incredible achievement of keeping this park alive.”
Part of the achievement was the successful effort in stopping a British oil company (Soco) that had been granted permission by the government to extract oil by drilling on the park’s land.
“We were fighting against a British oil company… we were in confrontation with a number of people. On that day, I had submitted a substantial investigation report into the activities of the oil company.” Says Merode. The company has since changed its name and withdrawn from the DRC.
According to reports, more than a dozen militia groups survive off the park’s resources through poaching or cutting down wood to sell for fuel. DR Congo is richly endowed with a lot of minerals including copper, diamond, oil, and cobalt but unfortunately these have been fought over for decades by several militia groups. The scramble for these minerals is fueled by their high demand given that they have some of the elements needed in production of modern technology devices such electric cars and smartphones.
Employing combatants to solve the problem
The increased tourism in Virunga which is a result of the relentless conservation efforts of several organizations and people like Merode and his team has attracted investments for other projects. One of such projects is the generation of hydroelectricity from the waters of the park’s fast-flowing rivers which has created some jobs for rebels allowing them to abandon their guns.
“What we have found is that by generating electricity from the park, almost immediately you get small businesses developing around it. With every megawatt of electricity that we are able to generate through these hydroelectric programs, we are to create between 800 and 1,000 jobs. Today there are about 12,000 jobs that have been created in this way around the park, of which 1,000 are ex-combatants from the armed groups. People join the militias because they have no choice and the only way to overcome that is to give them a choice. The issue of security cannot be resolved with weapons alone.” Narrates Mr. De Merode
About Virunga National Park
Virunga is located in eastern DR Congo and it is Africa’s oldest and largest national park spanning 7,800 sq. km (3,000 sq. miles). The park is home to diverse landscape including two active volcanoes – Mount Nyirangongo and Nyamurangira, vast lake basins, rainforests and mountains as we as several wildlife species of both flora and fauna. The most notable of these include the endangered mountain gorillas and golden monkeys which are one of the favorite tourist attractions to the park.
Gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park
Virunga is one of the only 4 national parks in the world where the endangered mountain gorillas are found. The Park has about 300 mountain gorillas with 9 habituated gorilla groups that are visited by tourists on a daily basis. Gorillas share about 98% of the human DNA and this makes them man’s closest relatives alongside chimpanzees. Each gorilla group in Virunga is visited by a group not exceeding 8 trekkers per day and they are permitted to spend one hour in their presence. The gorilla permit for trekking mountain gorillas in Virunga national park is sold at $400 per person. Virunga National Park is usually accessed through Rwanda, from Kigali international airport travelers are driven to Gisenyi border in the west from where they cross into DR Congo.