National Geographic and Virunga: Inside the Fight to Save One of the World’s Most Dangerous Parks

Virunga, one of the wonders of Africa, is home to rare gorillas—and plagued by violence and economic tension.

This story appears in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

When the ranger studied the ragtag crew he was supervising, seven young men repairing a rugged road that leads to Virunga National Park, it did not take much to see what he had in common with them. They were all born and raised in or around the park on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. None of them were rich. None of them would ever be rich. All of them had seen loved ones fall by the capricious machete stroke of a war with murky logic and no foreseeable end.

Less famous but just as important, the Bukima road connects farmers outside the park with village markets and the city of Goma beyond. For years it had been a morass of large rocks and quicksand-like mud. Its impassability made hard lives that much harder. But now the park was pouring money into the road’s reconstruction. And local men like these were repairing it. So the road also constituted a bond, albeit a slender one, between the region’s most visible national institution and villagers who view the park with hostility and, at times, rage, believing the land should still belong to them.

Emmanuel de Merode, flanked by bodyguards at park headquarters nine months after he survived an assassination attempt, has led the park for eight years. He has become the public face of the conservation effort in war-torn eastern Congo and a target for the park’s opponents.
Here was where the ranger, a captain named Theo Kambale, parted ways with the young men. Kambale’s heart held nothing but reverence for the park. You could see it in the crispness of his uniform, the care with which he tucked his green pants into his boots, which he fastidiously polished. Kambale was 55 and had spent 31 of those years as a ranger. His father, also a ranger, had died in 1960, the year of Kambale’s birth, gored by an African buffalo. His older brother had also been a ranger. He too had been slain in the line of duty, in 2006. The killer was not a wild animal, but instead a member of one of many armed groups that have ravaged and occupied Virunga for two decades.

To these young men raised in poverty, that Virunga’s tremendously fertile soil, its trees, and its creatures should be protected by law for the viewing pleasure of well-off tourists struck them as a grave injustice. They were swept into a militia known as M23, which touted a host of grievances against the corrupt government but in the meantime was content to loot and rape its way through a slice of eastern Congo near the park’s southern sector. By the end of 2013, after more than a year and a half of fighting, the Congolese Army, backed by United Nations troops, routed M23. Among the militia’s foot soldiers deemed salvageable, by UN peacekeepers and park officials, were these seven.

Xaverine Mwamini Biriko, one of 14 women who are rangers at Virunga, has held the post for more than two years. Standing with her at park headquarters is her father, Faustin Ngunza Biriko, who has been a ranger for 34 years.
The work on the Bukima road was harder and less profitable than looting. But the former rebels kept at it. Kambale was impressed. He talked to them from time to time. “Before now, all you were creating was insecurity in the region,” he would say. “Now you’re building this road. It’s a start. From here you can go on to do other things. But you can’t progress if there’s no security. So tell that to your friends. Tell them to leave their armed groups. Because that is not life. This”—and he would gesture toward the road—“is the beginning of life.”

The ranger hoped that his message would sink in. He knew of their desperate backgrounds. He was aware that most had been conscripted by force. Across their arms and backs was a grisly network of scars, testifying to their semi-enslavement. Seeing these men in their 20s permanently marked by brutality, Kambale thought of his own injury, delivered by a militia spear to his right leg. Proof of residency, you could say. If they could look past their battle wounds, perhaps this park could be saved.

There is no nationally protected area in the world quite like Virunga, in ways both blessed and cursed. Its approximately two million acres include a web of glacier-fed rivers, one of Africa’s Great Lakes, sun-bleached savannas, impenetrable lowland rain forests, one of the highest peaks on the continent, and two of its most active volcanoes. Virunga hosts more than 700 bird species (among them the handsome francolin and Grauer’s swamp warbler) as well as more than 200 mammals (including the odd-looking okapi, with zebra-striped hind legs, and 480 of the world’s 880 remaining mountain gorillas). Standing where the Semliki River flows out of Lake Edward with the Rwenzori Mountains glowering in the distance, serenaded by a moaning Greek chorus of water-besotted hippos, and gazing down at a thoroughly uncontaminated tableau of swimming elephants and strutting saddle-billed storks backlit by a low morning sun, one becomes very small, very silent, and very aware that nature’s brave feint of indomitability has all but come to an end.

For Virunga has been, going on two decades, a war zone. In 1994 the horrific ethnic conflict in neighboring Rwanda that led to the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus spilled across the border into Congo. Hutu fighters and more than a million refugees fled Rwanda after their defeat, settling in nightmarishly overcrowded camps around the park. Some Hutus later formed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda—known by its French acronym, FDLR—the militia that killed Kambale’s older brother. Congolese Tutsis eventually responded with the National Congress for the People’s Defense, or CNDP, which then spawned the March 23 movement, or M23. One bloody iteration after the next—fomented by these armed groups—has plowed into the park like a threshing machine.

Park Politics

Conservationists and tourists value Virunga National Park for its spectacular terrain and biodiversity. But some who live in extreme poverty near the park’s two million acres resent that they are not allowed to make use of its natural resources.


Many of the fighters, along with Congolese Army soldiers purporting to defend the territory, lingered well after the cease-fires, expunging the park’s wildlife for personal consumption or for sale as bush meat. Thousands remain in the jungle to this day, and thousands more from a shifting array of locally formed militias called Mai-Mai have joined them. Attempts by rangers to drive them out have led to deadly reprisals. This past March two rangers were executed in Virunga’s central sector, driving up the death toll of park rangers to 152 since 1996.

A different kind of war also looms over Virunga. This one pits the park and its ecological well-being against the search for oil. London-based Soco International obtained a concession in 2010 that allowed it to explore about half of Virunga, including the area near Lake Edward. After a sustained outcry led by conservation groups, four years later Soco backed down and now says it no longer holds the concession. The Ugandan government, however, has shown an interest in exploring for oil on its side of the lake, a grim reminder that the park and its precious resources are anything but sacrosanct.

The park is also a volatile staging ground for Congo’s internal grievances. As it happens, Virunga’s terrain is among the most fecund in Africa. That it has been set aside for conservation since the park’s founding in 1925, thereby depriving one of the world’s most deeply impoverished populations of badly needed natural resources, stokes seething discontent among the area’s four million inhabitants. Many, in defiance or ignorance of the law, cut down the park’s trees for charcoal, plant crops in its forests, kill its wildlife. Some form Mai-Mai militias and take over sections of the bush, emerging in periodic sprees of violence. Others run for elective office essentially as park abolitionists, vowing to reverse the misdeeds of the Belgian colonizers who they say tricked the locals into selling their treasured farmland, or so goes their campaign narrative.

This pervasive climate of resentment is not a small misfortune. Rather, it represents an existential challenge for Virunga. “The truth is that we’re not going to succeed unless we mobilize a critical mass of funding,” the park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, said, noting that the land, if it were developed, would bring the communities about a billion dollars a year. “Unless we equal that, this park won’t survive.”

Owing to the region’s chronic instability, a mere one-tenth of Virunga is accessible to visitors—and really only half of that could be described as tourist friendly. The park’s VIPs—the 250 to 300 mountain gorillas that are habituated to humans—are kept under daily watch by a security team of 80 humans, as would befit a president or a pope. Virunga is national property, but the government in Kinshasa contributes only five percent of the park’s eight-million-dollar annual operating budget. Most comes from the European Union, the U.S. government, and international nonprofits. Though a first-class hotel, the Mikeno Lodge, opened in 2012 near the gorilla sector, and the sumptuous tent camp on Tchegera Island in Lake Kivu began receiving guests in 2015, the number of visitors has not come close to matching that of the park’s prewar heyday. Indeed, the lodge was empty throughout much of 2012 and 2013 as Virunga hosted the latest season of bloodshed, the M23 rebellion.

Pressing against the park’s border, farmers cultivate the exceptionally fertile terrain. With four million people trying to eke out a living in the region, some trespass in the park to grow such crops as corn, sorghum, cassava, and potatoes.
In the years since, the park has experienced a renaissance thanks to projects, such as the Bukima roadbuilding effort, which aim to show Virunga’s neighbors that respect for the park will be rewarded. In particular, de Merode, with substantial support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, has embarked on an ambitious $166 million hydroelectric scheme utilizing the park’s rivers, with the aim of electrifying one-fourth of the area’s households by 2020 and creating 60,000 to 100,000 jobs along the way. The outcome, de Merode hopes, will be peace—and with that, more tourism, and thus more income for the region’s people, spurring an altogether different cycle from the one that is still bedeviling eastern Congo.

Meanwhile, slowly, the wildlife has begun to rebound. Since the massacre of seven mountain gorillas by charcoal traffickers in 2007, their population has been rising. In the central sector preserve known as Lulimbi, hippos have mounted a surprising recovery, while elephants are wading back across the Ishasha River from the safe haven of Uganda. Aggressive antipoaching operations by rangers have sent an unambiguous message to ivory and bush-meat traffickers: Virunga is no longer an anything-goes playground.

Rangers carry the coffin of one of their colleagues, Theodore Mbusa Matofali, 27, to a grave in his village. Attending funerals is all too common for the rangers. Since 1996, 152 park rangers have been killed, many by rebel militias operating in the park.
“It was a beautiful place,” Kambale said one afternoon as he stepped carefully through the weed-choked ruins of the Rwindi Hotel in the central sector. “The hotel was always over capacity. Everyone came to see the wildlife and take pictures. There were so many animals. Even the parking lot was full of antelopes and wild pigs and all types of monkeys.”

Today only baboons clamber through the brush. The cylindrical bungalows, the restaurant, the ballroom, the pool where mzungu ladies sunned themselves on hot days like this—all vacant and caked with two decades’ worth of neglect. The ranger wore a doleful smile, and his eyes were lost in the past. He was born and raised near the Rwindi patrol station. During the year of Kambale’s birth, 1960, Congo won its independence from Belgium. Its population, 15 million, was a fifth of what it is now. There was plenty of land to go around, for farmer and animal alike. As a young ranger in the 1980s, Kambale sometimes had to climb a tree to avoid being trampled by a buffalo. When the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko came to visit—to entertain guests, to plot a course for the country he had renamed Zaire, but most of all to fish on the Rwindi River—it was Kambale’s job to hook a live worm onto Mobutu’s line. “Mobutu had great respect for the park,” said Matthieu Cingoro, a lawyer for the Congolese national park system. “No one could farm in it or cut down trees. No one would even dare trespass.”

Then came the refugees from Rwanda. The Rwindi Hotel abruptly locked its doors. The patrol station now saw a desperate new breed of visitor. “There were many of them, and some had guns and ammunition,” Kambale remembered. “Like that, the population increased, and these people had no food and had to look for charcoal, wood for fire, even meat in the park.” One armed group begat another. The distinctions blurred. Congolese soldiers deserted their posts and disappeared into the bush. Some joined Mai-Mai militias, which at times confederated with the Hutu-based FDLR against all comers, including the rangers who sought to deny them a livelihood inside the park.

Bernadette Kahindo (at right) and her oldest daughter, Gift, are among the victims of the fighting. When Kahindo’s husband, park ranger Assani Sebuyori Mapine, tried to end the bush-meat trade, a rebel militia killed him in 2011 and left his headless body as a warning to other rangers. The child Gift holds was born after she was raped, at 14, by a fighter from another militia.
As the Mobutu regime collapsed in 1997, so did any semblance of governmental structure. Virunga’s rangers saw their salaries slashed. They had to fend for themselves. Many did so by taking money from poachers, who would brazenly call a compromised ranger and direct him to come pick up a slaughtered buffalo. Other rangers distributed tickets to locals, allowing them to harvest wood for charcoal with the understanding that a generous slice of the profits would be handed over to Virunga’s uniformed men—and make its way up the food chain.

Even in this moment of relative calm, ghosts have claimed far more of the central sector than its decaying hotel. The former ground zero for park tourists, Rwindi station, is still a no-go zone. The walls of the sector commander’s office are pocked with bullet holes. A UN military base lies nearby. Signs posted throughout Rwindi urge the locals to report any signs of a ranger’s suspicious activity.

Late one morning Kambale and two other armed rangers drove me to Vitshumbi, a village on the south bank of Lake Edward, inside the park’s boundaries. Conceptually, Vitshumbi is a fishery with 400 boats licensed to fish on the lake, supporting about 5,000 people. In reality, Vitshumbi is a squalid town with thousands of boats and perhaps 40,000 residents with no electricity or running water.

What it does have are Mai-Mai militias, which have offered protection to Vitshumbi’s fishermen and farmers in exchange for a surcharge. Behind the militias, Kambale and other rangers say, are politicians who supply the outlaws with boats and weapons. “It used to be that the Mai-Mais just fought with spears and machetes,” a young ranger stationed in Vitshumbi told me. “Now the politicians have given them guns.” The ranger pointed to a bullet scar on his left bicep, a souvenir from a recent encounter with Mai-Mais on Lake Edward. One ranger and seven Congolese soldiers had been killed.

A confiscated boat burns on the beach as rangers, joined by an instructor, try to prevent overfishing on Lake Edward. Fishing, a critical source of local income, is allowed on the lake, but rangers are confronted with thousands of unlicensed boats.
Elsewhere during my three weeks in the park, unrest flickered ominously like a rogue torch in the night. From Vitshumbi a ranger boat was waiting to take me north to the hippo enclave of Lulimbi. Minutes before embarking, I learned that my trip was canceled by the park’s director of security, who called to say the lake was not considered safe from attack. Three days before that, in the southern sector where the mountain gorillas reside, an angry phalanx of at least 300 villagers had blocked the road outside the Mikeno Lodge for hours, saying that the park had failed to compensate them for cutting down some of their trees that would have interfered with newly installed electrical lines. Adding to the villagers’ disquiet was the fact that a thousand or more Rwandan Army soldiers had quietly crossed the border to hunt down FDLR fighters. A week later, upon arriving in the northern sector, I watched as a squadron of rangers and Congolese soldiers made out for Mayangose, northeast of the city of Beni, where they forced out an encampment of 800 squatters who had been egged on by politicians to seize parkland.

A few hours after Kambale had escorted me from Rwindi to Vitshumbi in a park jeep, the central sector’s accountant left Rwindi for the day and drove home on his motorbike along the very same road—only to be waylaid by three men who jumped into his path and pointed Kalashnikovs at his chest. They tied his hands and dragged him off into the bush. Later that evening the accountant’s family received a call demanding a $5,000 ransom.

Word reached park headquarters. More than a hundred rangers and Congolese soldiers were dispatched to the central sector, along with aerial reconnaissance and tracking bloodhounds and spaniels. The dogs located the accountant’s scent. The pursuers set up a perimeter and began firing shots into the air. The kidnappers fled. Ambling through the bush, the accountant came upon the welcome sight of his fellow park employees. It was, for him, a harrowing ordeal—but also a show of swift action by de Merode, the man Kambale refers to as “our only hope.”

Rangers arrest people farming in the park illegally. Farmers are often driven from their homes by fighting and coerced into raising crops to feed armed groups. They may serve time in jail or pay a fine and are educated about how farming harms the park.PHOTOGRAPH BY BRENT STIRTON, REPORTAGE BY GETTY IMAGES
As heroic figures go, the 46-year-old Emmanuel de Merode seems somewhat miscast. Milky faced, thin, and mild in manner, the Virunga director and chief warden does not exactly fill a room; he does not even fill his uniform. When I first met him, at a National Geographic Society event in Washington, D.C., I was sure he must be someone else, waiting alongside me for the actual de Merode to materialize. By ancestry, he’s a Belgian prince, a title bestowed on his family because a forefather helped the country gain independence from the Netherlands. From this limited appraisal, one could imagine de Merode best suited to a life beside a fireplace with a glass of burgundy, sweater clad, rather than in one of the world’s most notorious conflict zones. But de Merode was born in Africa, spent his youth in Kenya, trained as an anthropologist, and has worked his adult years in conservation, much of it in Congo.

Beneath de Merode’s baggy ranger shirt are two sets of entry and exit wounds; one bullet went through his left lung and the other his stomach. He acquired these injuries in April 2014, while driving from Goma back to the park on a deserted and poorly paved stretch of marshy road about three miles south of Rugari. The would-be assassins were never found. (The investigation, his associates note with fatalistic eye rolls, is ongoing.) News of the shooting descended upon eastern Congo “like a thunderclap,” recalled Kambale. Today de Merode’s friends notice the occasional cough—the only utterance of lingering discomfort.

De Merode became Virunga’s director in 2008, at the park’s precise nadir. The previous director had been arrested earlier that year and accused of participating in a charcoal-trafficking ring and planning the gorilla massacre. (He was not convicted, for lack of evidence.) About six months earlier, the park’s new occupier had become the CNDP, a militia backed by Rwanda to take on the FDLR. De Merode’s first order of business was an audacious act—to show up unarmed at CNDP headquarters to ask that his rangers be permitted to return to the park. The militia’s leader, Laurent Nkunda, granted the request. De Merode then set to work cleaning up the ranger force. He slashed its ranks from 1,000 to 230 (later bringing the number back up to 480, including 14 women) and hiked monthly salaries from a pitiable five dollars to a decent living wage of $200—“enough,” he said, “to justify a zero tolerance of corruption.”


At the Senkwekwe Center in Rumangabo, rangers are raising four

De Merode then began trying to improve relations with the local population. He listened to the people’s complaints. For decades the park had promised that half of each tourist dollar would go back to the community. Where was that money being spent? The roads, the schools, the hospitals were steadily deteriorating. Meanwhile, elephants were destroying crops.

“Before de Merode started showing up, we didn’t even know the park had a director,” a fisherman in Vitshumbi told me. “Now you see the rangers have clean uniforms, good weapons. You see what a difference he’s making.” The director even sat down with Congolese militia groups—though with mixed results. “If we can have a constructive dialogue with militias that keeps people safe and keeps rangers from being killed, we’re willing to do that,” de Merode said. “But often it’s been disappointing, because it hasn’t been an honest dialogue.”

Regardless, his presence has registered with his adversaries. In 2012 a ranger major named Shadrack Bihamba was cornered by Mai-Mais on the shore of Lake Edward and led at gunpoint into the bush. Bihamba said the militia’s leader was worried, telling the others: “He’s an officer. If we kill him, de Merode will move heaven and Earth to annihilate us.” He instructed his men to release Bihamba. “Even though they’re Mai-Mais and have their strength in the bush,” Bihamba said, “they still fear de Merode, because they know he has the entire population behind him.”

Left: Porters carry gear for tourists climbing Nyiragongo volcano, which has the world’s largest lava lake… 

I had not seen Mutwanga before it had electricity, and it hardly resembled a boomtown when I spent a day touring the mud-splattered village. Still, the residents spoke of the change as transformative. What it had cost in a single day to power their shops in generator fuel now bought an entire month’s worth of electricity. Students could do their homework in the evening. The hospital functioned at all hours. People were buying irons, televisions, and CD players. The owner of a computer-repair store was renting out DVDs and preparing to open the town’s first Internet café, so that villagers would no longer have to drive an hour to Beni to send an email. A couple from Beni actually moved to Mutwanga in 2014 to realize their dream of owning a small printing shop. All of this despite the fact that only 500 of the community’s 2,500 households have been hooked to the hydroelectric plant’s modest 400-kilowatt output. And while de Merode’s team makes plans to accommodate the long waiting list, in April a factory powered by the park began making soap. It employs about a hundred workers from the area. “Mutwanga became our laboratory test,” de Merode said.

A second, larger hydroelectric plant came on line in December, and by the end of 2018 two others should be running. Those four plants would bring de Merode halfway toward his goal of producing a hundred megawatts of power. Selling that electricity, he predicts, would “enable us to ensure that the park will be financially sustainable for the next one hundred years.” Enough additional revenue would be generated to invest millions a year in community projects and conservation efforts in other Congo parks.

De Merode’s expectation is that electricity will catalyze economic development. “The reason there isn’t industry is there’s no access to cheap energy. That’s really what the park can offer,” he said. That this will lead to a flowering of entrepreneurship is far from a sure thing. “There aren’t any business role models here,” the soap factory’s managing director, 29-year-old Leonard Maliona, told me. “Young people have nothing to aim for, other than being a politician or joining a militia.”

Electric lights illuminate an operating room at a hospital in Mutwanga where a baby has just been delivered by cesarean section. Hydropower from a new dam just outside the park has allowed the hospital to replace candles and oil lamps. Park officials hope electricity from such projects will bring jobs to the region.

The notion of Virunga as the region’s “economic engine,” to use de Merode’s terminology, conjures up a spectacle that some may find unusual. Among other things, the scenario suggests that Congo’s leaders have essentially consigned the fate of one region of their country to a single park and its director, who shares his Belgian heritage with the country’s former colonial power. It also risks replacing a population’s lingering hostility toward the park with an intense dependency on it. De Merode’s gamble is unapologetically high stakes. And it rests heavily on young men who agree to beat their swords into plowshares and do an honest day’s work on little farm roads like the one up to Bukima.

The two laborers, both in their mid-20s, wore fluorescent orange vests over their T-shirts and were filling potholes on a shady stretch of the road. The taller of the two, with hooded eyes, was named Bushe Shukuru; the shorter one, with a quiet but easy smile, went by Gato Heritier. The two were childhood friends. Each time armed insurgents came, causing the villagers to run for miles until the sounds of gunfire had diminished, the teenagers would make it a point to search for each other at the refugee camps. On separate days during the spring of 2013, first Shukuru and then Heritier were caught in their village by M23 soldiers who tied their arms and marched them off to the place where they again found each other: the military base in Rumangabo, near the park’s southern sector, which had been taken over by M23. They joined a thousand or so young men who were also involuntary conscripts at the rebel faction’s training camp.

The commanders told Shukuru, Heritier, and the others that the government had failed eastern Congo. With proper training, they said, M23’s new warriors would take over the region and then advance westward and conquer Kinshasa. They were taught how to shoot, march in formation, attack, and withdraw. For their shortcomings, they were beaten with wooden sticks—some of them to death, right in front of the others. Others died of starvation from the paltry daily rations: a single cup of cornmeal. Three months of this, and then Shukuru and Heritier were sent to battle. By November both could see that M23 stood no chance against the army and UN forces. They fled and found each other again that month, in a UN compound.


The complex struggle for power between park rangers and armed groups.

Now here they were, in matching vests. The road they tended was, by rural Congolese standards, almost sleek. Yam and corn farmers, cattle and goat herders, schoolchildren and churchgoers negotiated the sloping path in half the time it once took. “The road’s really had a big impact,” said Heritier as he sat on a log and wiped the sweat off his face. Shukuru agreed: “That’s why I don’t mind doing this job. You can tell it’s helping this community.”

But, they acknowledged, three dollars a day for eight hours of backbreaking work was not where they saw themselves for long. As a small child, before he understood what life in eastern Congo had to offer, Heritier had imagined himself as “some kind of big guy. A doctor. Maybe even the president. I mean, why not?” If he saved his money, perhaps he could be a mechanic, and Shukuru might one day open a shop of some sort. A small and quiet, but honest and peaceful destiny that began with this road, leading uphill to the mountain gorillas. From there the peace would spread northward to Rwindi station, where Theo Kambale was also daring to harbor modest dreams. Recently, he had heard, a lioness and her cub had been spotted watering themselves on the banks of the Rutshuru River. And he had heard something else—that along with the slow return of wildlife, the long-abandoned Rwindi Hotel may also return, if the park can find the money to restore it.

It was, as Kambale told the young men on the road, the beginning of life.

A ranger surveys a new lava field created by Nyamulagira, the most active volcano in Africa. The 10,033-foot peak, with a new lava lake in its caldera, erupts roughly every two years. In the foreground is a sulfur deposit from a recent eruption. The park encompasses an extremely diverse landscape, including glaciers and savannas, as well as volcanoes.  PHOTOGRAPH BY BRENT STIRTON, REPORTAGE BY GETTY IMAGES

Source : National Geographic

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