It is dawn on the shores of Lake Edward and the sun is rising over the volcanoes on the eastern skyline. Mist lies over the still water. In the forest there are elephant, hippopotamus and buffalo. Guarding them are 26 rangers in a single fortified post.
Then the silence is rudely broken. There are shouts, scattered shots, volleys from automatic weapons. Waves of attackers rush through the brush and trees. Some are close enough to hurl spears and fire arrows.
Later, the rangers will tell their commanders that their assailants numbered more than a hundred. For 45 minutes the unequal battle continues. Then the guards, ammunition running low, withdraw. They take with them the bodies of three of their comrades. At least a dozen of their enemy lie on the ground.
“This is not an easy profession. Losing your friends and colleagues is very painful. But we chose to do this, and we know the risks,” said Innocent Mburanumwe, the deputy director of Virunga national park, an enormous stretch of more than 5,000 square miles of woodland, savannah and mountains on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The clash last August was the bloodiest in the park for many years. There was little elation when the post was retaken four hours after the rangers’ initial retreat. The steady attrition of what Mburanumwe calls “a low intensity war” in the Virunga has claimed the lives of more than 170 rangers over the last 20 years, a toll earning the park a reputation as one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world.
“Every day when the patrols set out, we know that they may come under fire. We know we may lose someone or we may be killed ourselves,” said Mburanumwe.
The threats facing the Virunga, home to one of the world’s largest populations of critically endangered mountain gorillas as well as hundreds of other rare species, are multiple.
There are armed rebel groups, hardened by years of combat against the Congolese government troops or those of neighbouring countries, local bandits and self-defence militia, and poachers out for ivory or bush meat. Then there is the hugely lucrative charcoal industry, for which the trees of the park are the principal raw material, and illegal fishing too.
In recent months the DRC has veered close to a plunge back into the appalling violence of the 1997-2003 civil war, which led to the deaths of 5 million and saw the wildlife in the park, Africa’s oldest, decimated. Observers hope catastrophe will be avoided but aid agencies describe the vast central African country as “on a cliff edge”.
Growing violence has displaced more than 4.5 million people, rebellions have claimed thousands of lives, and 2 million children are threatened with starvation. The prospect of elections at the end of the year has intensified fighting over land and resources, such as mines.
The new instability threatens the Virunga. Since January, the park has seen clashes between Congolese forces and neighbouring Rwanda’s soldiers and, in its northern parts, an offensive by a brutal Islamist militia responsible for killing 14 UN peacekeepers last year.
The rangers are recruited from villages surrounding the park. Most are married with many children.
Those in the frontline are often young. David Nezehose, 29, leads the rangers’ dog team. “I grew up and live next door to the park so I know its importance. My grandfather was a guide in the park 40 years ago. I wanted to protect the gorillas who are our neighbours,”he said.
There is a small but growing contingent of women among the 700 rangers who currently defend the park. Angèle Kavira Nzalamingi, 25, trains new recruits. She hopes to join the rangers’ elite rapid reaction force – after running the London marathon this month. In the conservative rural communities from which many of the rangers come, Nzalamingi’s career choice was controversial.
“My family are proud of me … but there were lots of people in my village who said this was not work for a woman. I wanted to show that we can do anything the men can do,” Nzalamingi said.
The Virunga’s fortunes have fluctuated with those of the DRC. Founded in 1925 by Belgian colonial authorities, the park struggled in the immediate aftermath of the country’s independence in 1960 but flourished under President Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant, wasteful and authoritarian ruler who took power in 1965.
Augustin Kambale, a senior ranger, remembers thousands of tourists visiting in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“It all went wrong in 1994 with the genocide in Rwanda. A million refugees crossed the border and set up camps here. They had weapons with them and soon these spread among the local population. It was really bad,” Kambale, 57, said.
By the time relative peace was restored long after Mobutu’s chaotic fall in 1997, the mountain gorilla population had sunk to 300.
In 2007 came what Kambale called “a great change”. A partnership was established between a charity funded by private donors, the European Union, the Howard G Buffett foundation, and the Congolese wildlife service. Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian aristocrat, was appointed director and implemented wide-ranging reforms.
The rangers got better equipment and training, and are now paid a monthly salary of $250, a sizeable sum locally. Others initiatives have focused on local communities, with micro loans and hydroelectric power projects to boost the local economy and, it is hoped, thus reduce recruitment to the rebel groups or criminal gangs among the 6 million living within a day’s walk of the park’s borders.
The mountain gorilla population now stands at more than 1,000, while the numbers of other animals, such as forest elephants, is also rising, and tourists are returning in significant numbers.
Local administrators say the park offers hope to the whole region, one of the poorest in Africa.
“Imagine what would happen here if we had 10,000 tourists coming every year,” said Julien Paluku, the governor of North Kivu province.
But the local economy is dependent on the security situation. When a rebel group swept into Goma, the provincial capital, in 2012, the park shut down. On the rutted road to the Virunga are military checkpoints. Rusty AK47s over a shoulder, eyes hidden by dark shades, troops from the DRC’s demoralised and poorly equipped army make desultory checks for illicit charcoal or bushmeat.
In a detention block at the park headquarters, smugglers and poachers are held pending transfer to local authorities. Outside stood a seized truck loaded with charcoal worth about $7,000, made in the park from felled trees. Its load will be distributed to hospitals. In a cell lay 24-year-old Jean-Paul Gambale, the driver.
“I know it’s not a good thing to do but I have four children. They don’t have any dinner at night. I was promised $15 by my boss to drive the truck,” he said.
Rangers admit that those running the charcoal networks are rarely caught. On a wall outside the detention block is a poster of a notorious wanted criminal described as a “major bandit and national parliamentary candidate”.
Such problems will eventually be overcome, says Kambale, the veteran ranger.
“I know the Virunga will go on getting better. One day the armed groups and the bandits and the poachers will all be gone from the park, and the tourists will go everywhere and the animals will live in safety. I know it.”