Virunga National Park: Africa’s Crown Jewel in Danger

Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse nature reserve is also its most dangerous. In 2018 alone, militia in Virunga National Park in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo killed twelve rangers during their work. Because of the violence, the park was closed to visitors since June 2018. Now he opens his doors again. Does the resource-rich Virunga still have a future in the face of so many desires?

by Roman Goergen  

(All Rights Reserved – Spektrum – Translation  Google)

Spread under the trees of a shady hill in the Congolese village of Rumangabo are eleven wooden crosses. The graves beneath are covered with leaves, and a light breeze blows through the trees above them. The names and numbers carved into the wood have one thing in common – they all date back to the year 2007. The hill is only a few meters away from an administrative building of the Virunga National Park and symbolizes both the history and the threat to the nature reserve in the east of the Democratic Republic (DR) Congo.

There are no humans in this small cemetery, but mountain gorillas – a subspecies of the Eastern lowland gorillas that is threatened with extinction altogether. They died at a time when violence and greed for resource conservation in the region had been hopeless: in 2007, the Congolese government lost control of the park’s Mikeno sector, which at that time only had 75 mountain gorillas, to rebels. In addition to the rebels, criminals also organized the illegal mining and trading of timber, especially charcoal. International attention for the mountain gorillas made this charcoal mafia inconvenient – that’s why the animals had to die. But the shock caused by the massacre among rangers and humans triggered a backlash that gave Virunga a chance to survive.

The Virunga National Park emerged in 1969 from the division of the Albert National Park into a Congolese and a Rwandan part. Founded in 1925 by the then Belgian king and colonial ruler Albert I, the predecessor park was the oldest on the continent. On approximately 8000 square kilometers, an area comparable to the Mediterranean island of Crete, Virunga National Park extends on a north-south length of 400 kilometers in the border triangle DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The very different altitudes of the park with different precipitation zones and its proximity to the seismically active East African trench give the park a very special versatility in habitats. Tropical forests, savannahs, marshland, lakes, lava fields, glaciers and even two active volcanoes host Africa’s largest biodiversity, making it a paradise for nature lovers.


Hippos and Buffalo | The Congolese Virunga National Park is one of Africa’s most biodiverse protected areas – and the most endangered. Poachers are targeting elephants and hippos, among others.

Unstable political situation also threatens animals

Here are about 40 percent of all animal and plant species of the continent. In addition to primates such as mountain gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas and chimpanzees, other rare and popular species such as the Central African Lions, the mysterious Okapis, Congo peacocks, black buffalo and hippos live on the shores of Lake Edward in Virunga. That is why the park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 – but since 1994 it has also been on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

As unstable as the geology of its volcanoes is the political situation in and around Virunga. In 1994, the genocide in Rwanda, immediately adjacent to the park, caused a geopolitical chain reaction, which continues to be felt particularly in eastern Congo. The cross-border conflict has since cost around six million lives. The forests of Virunga offer hiding places and resources to domestic refugees and militias as well as those from neighboring countries. It is estimated that about 90,000 people still live illegally in the park.


Ranger | The women and men of the Ranger staff in the national park risk their lives every day. Dozens have died in recent years from poachers or militias invading the park.

In addition, there are four million people impoverished by the conflict in the border area to the nature reserve. “The park is under threat,” confirms a representative of Save Virunga , adding, “Villagers, fishermen, and rangers are paying with their lives the instability.” No fewer than twelve armed military factions make Virunga unsafe. Power relations and dynamics between groups are constantly changing. “Right now we are particularly worried about the three main militias: the Rwandan FDLR in the south, the Congolese May-May in the park center and the Ugandan ADF in the north,” explains Virunga’s Belgian park director Emmanuel de Merode. That’s why such groups stick so stubbornly in the park because their resources generate revenue for the militias. “It’s about the charcoal from Virunga’s woods or the fish from Lake Edward. Such illegal exploitation brings these groups millions of dollars in annual revenue”, says de Merode.

Poaching, illegal fishing, logging and charcoal production against the background of porous borders have made the Virunga border area a popular route for ivory smuggling and other illicit trafficking

(Fidele Ruzigandekwe)

In 2010, the UN Security Council estimated the annual value of charcoal trade in the Congo as estimated at US $ 28 million to US $ 30 million. “Charcoal worth around four million US dollars is being transported every year from the eastern Congo beyond its borders,” explains Fidele Ruzigandekwe. He represents the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC), a forum of the seven nature reserves from Congo, Rwanda and Uganda and that form the Virunga ecosystem. “Although the resources of this region should open up many opportunities, they are currently creating conflicts in the first place. Poaching, illegal fishing, logging and charcoal production against the background of empty borders have made the Virunga border area a popular route for ivory smuggling and other illicit trafficking, “said Ruzigandekwe.

The mountain gorilla massacre of 2007 was also due to illegal charcoal production. The perpetrators concluded that fewer gorillas meant less international attention. In addition, the park guards should be demoralized. The plan did not work. Photos of the gamekeepers went around the world: they had been woven into the dead gorillas and carried in a silent, almost religious procession for over seven hours to the park administration in Rumangabo. There are now the executed members of the Rugendo family with their patriarch, the silverback Senkwekwe, the killed gorillas that fill with others the small cemetery.


Charcoal production | Charcoal is big business around the park. Righteous gangs invade the reserve, cut down trees and turn them into charcoal. Here Ranger ensure the material.

When the situation worsened, the Congolese Conservation Agency (ICCN) responded by appointing the Belgian de Merode park director in 2008. Already in 2005, the European Commission presented a concept to the financially weak Democratic Republic of the Congo in order to transform the National Park into a public-private partnership between ICCN and the British NGO African Conservation Fund. Since 2010, the African Conservation Fund has been the lead in Virunga’s destiny, and since 2014 its successor, the Virunga Foundation, which is heavily funded by EU funds.

Concern for colonial power structures

Under the leadership of de Merode and financing through the Virunga Foundation, safety in the park improved. More game wardens were engaged and received military training from European trainers. Meanwhile, around 730 such rangers patrol Virunga National Park. By 2014, it was less than 300. By contrast, according to UN estimates, there are still around 8,000 militias in eastern Congo. Nevertheless, the violence subsided, at least directly in the park. In 2014, the situation had even stabilized enough for the park to reopen for tourism for the first time since the early 1990s in what was then Zaire.

The appointment of de Merode and the now significant influence of the Virunga Foundation on the fortunes of the park has shifted its control in a Western European direction. Even the American philanthropist Howard G. Buffet, a son of billionaire Warren Buffet, has invested considerable sums in the park, especially in its hydroelectric power plants. Such financial developments, however, have also given some of the Congolese living in the area an impression that is still coming from the Belgian colonial era, according to which Westerners would be in the lead.

Born in Tunisia and raised in Kenya, however, Emmanuel de Merode has a lifelong connection to the continent. The UK-trained biological anthropologist came to Zaire in 1993 to study the country’s illegal bushmeat trade for his Ph.D. He then worked with the wildlife rangers Virungas as a member of the organization WildlifeDirect, which was founded by his father in law, the famous Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey . The Belgian nobleman in Congo does not lead the title of nobleman as a prince and sees no other difficulties with the complicated history between the Belgian nobility and the fate of the African country. “In 25 years (in Congo), I have not experienced a single moment in which I felt unwelcome for this reason,” says the Belgian.


Mountain gorillas | Most tourists come for the mountain gorillas, whose population has increased in recent years, despite all odds. Ranger lead the visitors to monkey families, who are used to people and at least tolerate those in their vicinity.

Threat of crude oil

The hardest test de Merode cam soon after his takeover, as international corporations showed increasing interest in looking for crude oil in Virunga. In 2010, the Congolese government signed an agreement allowing the British company Soco to seek oil in almost half of the national park, including Lake Edward . Both conservationists and policy experts were shocked. They feared environmental destruction, oil pollution in Lake Edward and even greater political destabilization. The International Crisis Group warned in a report especially against rebel groups that might try to control the oil trade.

De Merode also pointed to a lack of legal basis, because the agreement contradicted in his view, both Congolese and international nature conservation laws for the World Heritage. However, in subsequent years, Soco systematically began to establish a presence in the park, not shying away from bribery and intimidation, as evidenced by numerous evidence, including the New York Times .

When the park administration supported a documentary production of the streaming service Netflix on the situation in Virunga, the situation escalated. On April 15, 2014, two days before the premiere of the film, de Merode was ambushed while driving from the provincial capital of Goma to his 45-kilometer headquarters in Rumangabo. Unknown gunmen opened the fire on de Merode’s vehicle, hit him four times in the upper body. The park director shot back, escaped badly injured and survived. The background of the assassination could never be cleared up. While de Merode was recovering at a hospital in Nairobi, Soco began seismic testing on the bottom of Lake Edward in early May of that year.

Assassination attempt against park director

The release and Oscar nomination of the Netflix documentation brought the turnaround. An outraged world public, UNESCO, the EU, the British, German and many other parliaments increased the pressure on Soco so much that the company phased out its license in 2015. “For me it is beyond doubt that without the Netflix film the park would not exist today,” affirms de Merode, who, according to his own admission, never thought about quitting even after the assassination attempt.

What followed was a recovery phase in which even a little tourism in Virunga could establish itself. Especially the interest of the travelers in Virungas mountain gorillas has brought the park both foreign exchange and improved the situation of the animals. Visitors are particularly struck by the much lower price of gorilla trekking in the Congo compared to the neighboring Rwandan Volcano National Park as an argument for accepting the risks.

“When park rangers try to protect these resources, the militias become hostile and attack our employees”

(Emmanuel de Merode)

In 2018 the problems increased again. The presidential election campaign in the country increased tensions, the militias strengthened again. “The violence has never quite disappeared, but it always peaks when elections are due,” says a Save Virunga representative who does not want to be named. The militias once again attempted to increase their control over the park’s resources and thereby improve their income. “When park rangers try to protect these resources, the militia become hostile and attack our employees,” explains de Merode. 2018 was a sad record, with twelve game wardens killed.

Over the past 20 years, a total of 180 rangers have lost their lives. “There were a whole series of tragic moments last year, but the death of six of our rangers in an ambush in March was certainly the hardest moment,” says de Merode. In May, when two English tourists were abducted by the May-May militia and ranger Rachel Baraka died trying to protect them, de Merode took the consequences: “We were able to free the tourists, but concluded that we had to close because of this, the massive financial and moral consequences for the park administration were terrible, according to de Merode: “We need a little over ten million dollars a year for the park. Of this, tourism and the sale of electricity by our hydroelectric power plants are supposed to cover half of it. “


Extracted for Charcoal | The charcoal trade is on a grand scale – and has already destroyed vast tracts of forest in Virunga Park.

In June 2018, Emmanuel Kayumba, Chief of Staff in the Congolese Ministry of Oil, also announced that the government would set up a commission that would once again pursue the goal of allowing oil drilling in Virunga. The idea was to declassify 1700 square kilometers of the area of Virunga as a nature reserve, and to outsource. That would be equivalent to almost 22 percent of the entire park. “These plans would have a huge impact on wildlife, habitat, biodiversity, and surrounding communities. Anyone who harms a part of Virunga endangers the entire ecosystem” warns Save Virunga.

Orphanage for gorillas

The organization is also concerned that oil exploration on the Ugandan side of Lake Edward could drive such plans in the Congo. If there were soon pipelines and refineries in Uganda, this could quickly lead to the idea of profiting from this infrastructure, even from the Congolese shores of the lake. Meanwhile Emmanuel de Merode points out that these proposals are not yet a government policy. In addition, the elections at the turn of the year had led to a change of power in the country – the new energy policy has not yet been decided. “Nevertheless, we must continue to strengthen our arguments that there are better and cleaner alternatives to oil,” the park director said.

But there were also bright spots last year. After the tragedy of 2007, the park built an orphanage for gorillas in Rumangabo. The first inhabitant of the Senkwekwe Center, named after the murdered silverback, was Ndakasi, one of his daughters. When the gamekeepers took the gorilla baby off the back of their headshot mother, no one knew if the weak and frightened creature would survive. Today, Ndakasi is a self-confident adult who keeps her keepers busy with her pranks. Their story represents the comeback of mountain gorillas in the region.


Outbreak of Nyamulagira | Virunga National Park could be a major international tourist destination. In addition to the incredible biodiversity, the large animal herds and the mountain gorillas, the region also features scenic highlights such as active volcanoes.

By mid-2018, twelve teams from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) were looking for animals signs of life in the habitat of mountain gorillas, covering just 792 square kilometers in the cross-border Virunga massif and Bwindi-Sarambwe park.

The experts calculated that the number of mountain gorillas has risen to over 1000 – compared to 680 at the last survey in 2008. Of these about a third lives in Virunga National Park. There, in 2018 alone, the gorillas of the Mikeno sector experienced eleven births. “The increase is due to effective animal welfare strategies,” says Anna Behm Masozera, director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program. “It was coordinated across borders, and consisted of law enforcement, regulated tourism, daily protection, on-site veterinary care, and community involvement,” adds the primate researcher. In Virunga National Park, according to de Merode, 30 percent of gorilla tourism revenue is invested in local social projects in the villages.

Gorillas “only” still in danger

In the face of this stabilization, the IUCN has downgraded the endangered mountain gorillas from “critically endangered” to “endangered”. But there is no reason for a respite. “While this is fantastic news, the animals are still at risk and protective measures need to be continued,” says Liz Williamson of the IUCN Primacy Specialist Group. Her colleague Behm Masozera emphasizes: “The subgroups of mountain gorillas are still very small and can be quickly reduced by crises.” It was therefore important to protect their habitat. In the 2018 survey, the IUCN teams discovered around 400 loop traps in search of mountain gorillas. In one, a gorilla had died.

In addition, Christina Ellis of the Jane Goodall Institute points out that despite all the international enthusiasm for mountain gorillas, the needs of other primates in Virunga are often forgotten. “Chimpanzees and Eastern lowland gorillas also live on the western edge of the park. Human hunt is a primary threat to these monkeys. “In addition, the transformation of forest into farmland reduces the habitat for all primates.

A study by the University of Maryland, published in November in the journal Science Advances, shows that the Congo Basin, which extends from the Central African Republic to the north of Zambia, was analyzed between 2000 and 2014 through the analysis of satellite imagery has lost about 165 000 square kilometers of forest land. This is more than the surface of Tunisia. The paper indicates that 84 percent of these losses were due to forest clearance for self-sufficient farming. For the DR Congo alone, this rate is even rising to over 90 percent. Between May and September 2018, the Global Forest Watch group recorded a forest loss of 680 to 1100 hectares on satellite images for Virunga National Park. “And between October 2018 and mid-January 2019, an additional 200 hectares disappeared,” says Global Forest Watch representative Katie Fletcher. “Here, too, it’s about clearing land for self-sufficiency agriculture and charcoal production,” says Fletcher.

Voluntary relocations at gunpoint

Experts, however, warn of a demonization of those people who penetrate in the area of the park and clear forest because of their poverty. “These local communities have been victims of conflict and instability for over 20 years. As a result, they switched to survival mode and lost their attachment to the environment” emphasizes Save Virunga. The park is seen either as a resource to be used as a livelihood or as a threat because armed militia camped there.

Virunga National Park has a total of over 900 kilometers open border with the neighboring areas. The park, with its extremely fertile soil, borders heavily impoverished communities. “And in the perception of many residents, the boundary to the park is often not even clearly defined and changes,” says Judith Verweijen, a political scientist at the University of Sussex. The conflict researcher returned from one of her numerous research trips to eastern Congo in January, reporting “significant tensions” between the village communities around Virunga and the parkkeepers. “Some of these people insist that in the past they had either been promised financial compensation for eviction from the park or social services such as schools or hospitals, and in some cases even from the Belgian colonial rulers. Since these promises were not kept, they now say that it is not illegal to farm here, “said Verweijen.

From 2003 alone, an estimated 180,000 people were evicted from the park by the ICCN as part of a volunteer program. However, the Swiss political scientist Kai Schmidt-Soltau, who also works for the World Bank, reports that such allegedly voluntary relocations took place at least in part “at gunpoint”.

Attention to the needs of the people who live around the nature reserves usually only disturb such stories.

(Judith Verweijen)

Even now Verweijen observes harsh practices against people who cultivate in the park area. Harvests would be destroyed without any warning, the rangers are often brutal and haughty to the people. “It would be wrong to question the good intentions and sacrifice of the park administration. Many park guards have given their lives for Virunga. But we have doubts about their current approach, ” Verweijen writes in an analysis with her colleague Esther Marijnen from the Conflict Research Group at the University of Ghent. There is a growing fusion of conservation and counterinsurgency that could drive ordinary people back into the arms of the militias – a phenomenon also known in other countries in the context of poaching, described as the “green militarization of nature conservation”.

Common narratives attributed the causes of violence mostly to resource exploitation or poaching. It’s about the conflict between evil rebels or poachers and good rangers. »Attention to the needs of the people who live around the nature reserves usually only disturbs such stories,« the researchers say.

“Green militarization alone can not protect national parks and can even be counterproductive,” admits Emmanuel de Merode. He emphasizes that the success of protected areas depends on the surrounding communities, which in turn raises the question of what benefits and resources they receive from the parks and their surroundings. “Nevertheless, the use of these resources must be regulated by law. And the law must be upheld. That is a statement, not an opinion” affirms de Merode.

In order to reach people’s hearts and minds, Virunga’s park management relies on hydropower. In DR Congo, only 15 percent of the approximately 80 million inhabitants have access to electricity, and in the particularly poor region of Virunga, only three percent. It is cooked almost exclusively with charcoal and heated. The park’s initiatives aim to establish hydropower as an alternative and thus achieve several goals: to reduce environmental degradation and poverty and to provide the park with additional income through the sale of electricity. “It is certainly an illusion to think that we can replace charcoal as the main source of energy for the impoverished people of the region entirely by hydropower. But in the long term, we could at least offer more energy to more affluent groups, reducing the overall consumption of charcoal, “says Virunga Energy Chairman Ephrem Balole, an autonomous company spun off from the park management to manage and construct the hydroelectric power plants in Virunga. At the moment there are two such plants with a total capacity of just under 14 megawatts, built with European and American funds. Two more are planned for this year.

Electricity should attract companies and thus create jobs. By 2022, this could create 100,000 jobs in and around Virunga. According to the park administration, there are currently around 16,000 jobs that are either directly or indirectly due to the existence of the park. In addition, five to eight percent of new jobs would be accepted by former rebels. According to this park management bill, the target of 100,000 jobs would deprive the militia of any recruiting potential.

However, such numbers are too optimistic for Judith Verweijen: »The goal is also that the park will largely finance itself. For that he needs a profit, but he does not help the poor people. They have no education, and that is necessary for such jobs. This means that a majority will not continue to experience such benefits, “said the Dutchwoman. She and her colleague Marijnen continue to doubt a “rhetoric of threefold utility,” in which nature conservation, development aid, and conflict-settlement in Virunga are all aimed in exactly the same direction, advancing one another.

Despite all the problems, the park administration is hoping for a peaceful year. “We have massively improved our safety and are opening the park to visitors again from February,” says de Merode. But he also understands that the future of the park will depend on the political stability of the Congo.

Roman Goergen

The author is a journalist and reports on environmental issues, ecology, biology, technology and innovation from Johannesburg, South Africa. One of his priorities is Africa’s ecosystems with their wildlife.

Source: Spektrum (translation  Google)