The Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the world’s deadliest parks. It’s also home to some 300 mountain gorillas—more than a quarter of those that remain on the planet. Beneath Virunga’s surface lies a wealth of minerals and oil, coveted by multinational companies. Deadliest park because since 1996, more than 150 Virunga rangers have been killed in the line of duty. Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park and a National Geographic Society Explorer of the Year, was nearly killed in 2014 for protecting the park and its mountain gorillas.
Violence goes with the territory. Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park and a World Heritage site, is one of the most contested zones on Earth. It is also home to all of the DRC’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. Virunga has been at the center of the DRC’s civil wars for decades. The ongoing conflict decimated the mountain gorilla population and damaged surrounding communities. Thanks to its committed force of rangers—more than 140 have died protecting the park—Virunga is undergoing a resurgence. The mountain gorilla population has increased to 880.
Speaking at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C, de Merode talks about the day he was nearly killed in an ambush, how a British oil company is further complicating the conservation effort, and why it is crucial to protect mountain gorillas.
Why is Virunga so contested? And how does this affect the park’s mountain gorillas?
Virunga is an extreme case of what’s happening with many of Africa’s parks and natural reserves. These are often areas incredibly rich in wildlife resources, and they have financial value, which invariably creates conflict over access to those resources. That has been accentuated in Virunga because it’s at the heart of the armed conflict that has been happening in the eastern Congo since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. That has created a very volatile situation that Virunga’s rangers have had to manage for many years, under very difficult circumstances.
You have attended more than 22 funerals of park rangers. As director of the park, how do you feel when you stand at their graves?
It’s the hardest part of my job. As their commanding officer, I feel responsible, because they came into harm’s way on my orders. Tragically, it’s been a repeated incident, so I’m extremely and very painfully aware of the risks I put my staff in. We’ve lost 22 of our staff on my watch as director. Seventeen of those were protecting civilians, not wildlife, because as government officers we’re responsible for all law enforcement within the park, which makes us responsible for anyone passing through the park. So it’s not [just about] the wildlife. It’s [also about] peace and stability in the area.
The United Kingdom-based oil firm Soco International is exploring for oil in Virunga, despite strong criticism from environmental organizations. How does this complicate conservation?
It’s been an enormous challenge. It’s a large multinational company, and there’s barely a place on Earth that has successfully overcome the issue of oil extraction within a protected area. That’s what we’re trying to do in an area that is just recovering from a very violent conflict and where it’s extremely difficult to uphold the law, and government institutions remain very fragile.
There have also been acts of extreme violence against those opposed to oil exploration. The bodies of fishermen who opposed it because of the effect it has on their livelihoods were found floating in Lake Edward inside the park the day after they voiced that opposition. These are very serious issues which challenge the notion of how you manage a protected area and uphold the law. It also brings into question the conduct of business in postconflict environments or in conflict-affected areas. [Soco has denied any wrongdoing.]
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