Just a few days ago, another six rangers were killed in an ambush at DR Congo’s Virunga National Park. This is a small fraction of the more than 200 rangers killed in the past, including 12 last April in the deadliest of such attacks in recent memory. We always seem to notice rangers in their death, when it is too late, but we forget about their life’s battles. It’s time to change that. Today, it is our mission to save one Virunga ranger; together we are going to make a difference, before it’s too late.
Vianney Harakandi has been doing what he loves for the past 30 years, protecting wildlife from poachers, including endangered species like the great mountain gorillas. Vianney became a park ranger in November of 1989, before that, working as a teacher. At the end of each school year, as he passed through the savannahs of Virunga National Park, on his way to Beni for holidays, he admired the herds of buffaloes and antelopes grazing on the side of the road. This admiration, as well as a love of nature, is what motivated him to serve as a ranger.
Only four months after his arrival at the park, he was assigned to the corps of guides, where he led tourists through the tracks of the Rwindi plain, the Kabasha escarpments, and the shores of Lake Edward. Unfortunately, the war began, and after an attack targeting Italian tourists on their way to the Rwindi station in 1995, tourism abruptly stopped.
The First and Second Congo wars, from 1996 to 2003, brought a multitude of armed groups into the park. Vianney and the rest of the ranger force could only witness the devastating impacts these armed militias had on Virunga’s wildlife. Animals were regularly killed for their bushmeat, and the rest of the natural resources of the park were extracted by rebels fueling the violent conflict. The Congo wars ended, but the violence and looting of Virunga’s resources had just begun. New armed groups appeared, many of them backed by politicians and their own greedy interests for land, resources and votes. Clashes with rebel groups intensified claiming the lives of an increasing number of rangers.
Before the arrival of the Virunga Foundation, the remuneration of a ranger was very low and the risks were very high; corruption was in many cases the only way for rangers and wardens to survive. When corruption was not an option, rangers profited from illegal fishing, poaching and even charcoal making. With the failure of law enforcement and the lack of rule of law, local communities started taking advantage of this void, institutionalising large-scale corruption to gain access to arable land, spawning grounds and illegal logging.
The destruction of the park and weakening of the institution was well advanced when Emmanuel de Merode arrived in 2008. Then came a decennium of hardship and perseverance to redress the ranger force, bring back the rule of law and support the local communities with economic alternatives. However, the needed change came at a high price, a price paid mostly by the rangers.
In his 30 years in Virunga, Vianney has lost many of his colleagues, he has witnessed the recurrent boom and bust cycle of the park and tourism and knows like no other what it means to never give up and continue the fight for Virunga. But how can someone get used to the death of his fellow rangers and not become discouraged?
As he says: “Death is everywhere and as Africans we believe in the destiny of which only God has the last word.”
Today, a new generation of young Congolese rangers is ready to join the fight for the survival of this park. Despite the very present dangers, they see Virunga as one of the few real options they have in life.
Vianney has survived many battles but recently he has been very sick and was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Doctors in DR-Congo advised him to go to a special hospital in Kenya to undergo heart surgery. It is impossible for him to cover the cost of all the hospital bills, and without this surgery he will die.
This is a death that we can stop, a battle that we don’t have to lose, this is why we are asking for your generosity to save this ranger’s life.
Virunga needs you, we need you. Let’s save lives instead of counting deaths.