DRC’s Virunga: Park, gorillas and rangers all under attack

As challenging and dangerous as the job of ranger is, there are Congolese women strong and brave enough to take it on.

How can anyone not love gorillas? They look like the world’s meanest mofos but in fact they’re family-oriented vegetarians who love to play and swing from trees when they’re not munching on stems, bamboo shoots and fruits, or maybe ants and termites or their larvae. 

One of the shelter gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park became so distressed when Rwanda’s M23 militia started shelling the neighborhood that he curled up in fetal position and died three days later. Kaboko had already lost one hand to violence in the park before being orphaned and rescued years earlier. His story is one of several woven into “Virunga,” a 2014 film about the park and the Congolese park rangers protecting it.  

So who would harm these gentle, fun-loving creatures? Their only natural predators appear to be leopards and humans, with the latter being more dangerous by far. Some poachers try to kill the parents and steal the children to sell to zoos. Others, particularly soldiers, consider them “bushmeat” to hunt and eat. 

The most violent and threatening predators are both foreign and native actors who want to get the rangers, people and wildlife, especially the gorillas, out of the way to ransack the park’s resources.

Why so much international concern for the gorillas, so little for the Congolese communities decimated by invading armies, rapacious corporations, resource smugglers, and the warring militias and governments who collaborate with them for a share of the plunder? In part because the gorillas are endangered and immediately endearing creatures; the sight of them is enough to touch hearts all over the world. They help build an international conservation constituency of NGOs, foundations, government agencies, and nature lovers who are committed to the park’s survival. If they were gone, that constituency would be greatly weakened.

However, the violence against Congolese is complex, involving many actors and motivations. It’s difficult to understand without study.

Furthermore, the industrialized world commonly perceives overpopulation to be the problem – meaning that there are too many poor people there – even though there are only 84 million Congolese in national territory the size of Western Europe, which is home to 196 million. 

DRC is not overpopulated; it’s overexploited, so most of its people are poor. Five million are internal refugees, otherwise known as “internally displaced persons,” living in camps. 

Virunga National Park Ranger Andre Baum’s job is gorilla caretaker, but he too arms himself in defense of Congolese villagers in the path of the M23 and other hostile resource plunderers.

Virunga rangers massacred

More than 200 of the park’s heroic rangers have been killed defending it in recent decades, and, in the third week of April, militia members massacred 12 more, along with a driver also employed by the park, and four civilians. 

On Friday, the park issued a statement saying that about 60 militiamen had ambushed a convoy of civilians whom the park rangers were protecting, and naming the rangers who lost their lives.

The attackers’ motivation has not been revealed, but the park’s statement says it can confirm that “FDLR-FOCA” were responsible.

This may be true, but Rwandan and Western governments have blamed the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu refugee militia, for most of the violence in eastern DRC since 1994, when hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million, Rwandan Hutus fled across the border from Rwanda to DRC, terrified by Gen. Paul Kagame’s advancing army. 

Kagame won the Rwandan war of 1990-1994, seized power in Kigali, made himself the president, then invaded DRC in 1996. His forces waged two wars, toppled one president and assassinated another, then established an ongoing but unacknowledged occupation after the 2003 peace treaty was signed.

Who blew up the bridge, ransacked the village, slaughtered the elephants for their tusks, killed the gorillas, or smuggled that load of ore and/or timber across DRC’s eastern borders? . . . it’s always about the resources.

Being skeptical due to this history, I wrote to the park press office to ask how they can be sure that FDLR-FOCA killed these 17 Congolese, given that so many militias, including the infamous Rwandan-government militias CNDP and M23 have operated in the park. FDLR, CNDP, M23 and more recent creations of the Rwandan government all speak Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda, and might therefore be taken for one another.

The park press office hasn’t yet answered, which is not to say that they won’t, but whatever the answer, credible confirmation is needed because the killing can’t be stopped without understanding and/or revealing who the perpetrators are. This is a longstanding conundrum in DRC. 

Who blew up the bridge, ransacked the village, slaughtered the elephants for their tusks, killed the gorillas, or smuggled that load of ore and/or timber across DRC’s eastern borders? Often there are no answers to these questions, or the answers conflict, but it’s always about the resources, including Congolese territory that Rwanda’s President Kagame hopes to annex.

The park authority, Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), is a partner of the Congolese government, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the European Union, and international NGOs and foundations, so there are, no doubt, multiple political pressures and degrees of awareness involved.

The gorillas have adopted Park Ranger Andre Baum into their family.

Despite the astounding natural wealth of the park and surrounding region, the European Union and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation pay most of its bills, and whoever does that no doubt wields considerable power, whatever their motivations and however they understand the park’s problems. Howard Buffett, billionaire son of Warren, is a close ally of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. He and another ally, Bill Gates, are on a mission to privatize and industrialize African agriculture with USAID’s help.

The Buffett Foundation financed Virunga, so I can’t help but wonder whether that’s why it identifies M23 as a “rebel militia,” not as what it was – a militia of Rwandan invaders commanded by Rwanda’s top military officers and thus by Kagame himself. The film was meant to be a naturelogue to promote the park and the rangers, but the filmmakers arrived in the midst of M23’s 2012-2013 war against the Congolese people, so it took a different turn.

Virunga, the park

Virunga is Africa’s oldest and most biologically diverse wildlife reserve. Park Director Emmanuel de Merode described it in a 2017 interview with National Geographic:

“Stretching 400 km (250 miles) from north to south, Virunga lies within the Albertine Rift, a geographical region in equatorial Africa characterized by mountain ranges, several great lakes and stupendous biodiversity. In the north of the park, the snow-capped Rwenzori mountains reach a height of 5,100 metres (16,700 feet). The central savanna region is home to hippos, elephants and lions. And the south is well-known for its mountain gorillas who live in the rainforests, on the slopes of several dormant volcanoes. There are also two active volcanoes, both of which have sizable lava lakes that sometimes erupt.

“The geological volatility of the region mirrors the socio-political landscape. Virunga lies near the nexus of one of Africa’s most violent and lawless regions, where DRC meets Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. Since 1994, more than 6 million people have died as a consequence of conflict.”

About half the mountain gorillas – now estimated to be more than 1,000 – are in Virunga. The other half are in Uganda’s Bwindi and Mgahinga parks and Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans.

Over 700 male and female Congolese rangers make up a paramilitary organization protecting the park, its wildlife, the park staff and surrounding communities. They go through intense selection processes and extensive training with European special forces instructors. 

Because the Congolese army so often fails to protect nearby villagers, it frequently falls to the rangers to do so as best they’re able or to at least give them refuge during periods of intense fighting. In the film “Virunga,” the Congolese army is running away as the M23 militia advances to take Goma, the capital of DRC’s North Kivu Province. 

“The hardest part of my job is having to bury the men that have been entrusted to me. Since I started at Virunga in 2008, 39 rangers have died.”

The park rangers lack the force to protect Goma from M23 and that’s not within their mandate, but they race to evacuate park staff, stay to protect the Senkweke Gorilla Sanctuary, then offer shelter and medical care to Congolese fleeing Goma. At the same time an internal refugee camp of 60,000 empties as the refugees flee M23.

In the 2017 National Geographic interview, Park Director Emmanuel de Merode also spoke about the park rangers:

“The hardest part of my job is having to bury the men that have been entrusted to me. Since I started at Virunga in 2008, 39 rangers have died.

Virunga National Park rangers set out on an armed expedition. They protect not only the park but also surrounding villages. Nearly 6 million Congolese died in wars over resource riches between 1998 and 2007, and the violence continues.

“Since the war started in 1996, about 160 rangers have died. It’s important to emphasize that most of these rangers have died protecting the local people, not the wildlife.

“There’s a very strong tradition of wildlife conservation in eastern Congo, and it all started in Virunga National Park, the oldest park in Africa. Many of the rangers here are the children or grandchildren of former rangers. There is a lot of pride in the uniform, and also a very strong sense of community. …

“Even though it’s probably one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, not a single ranger has left the ranger corps. They’ve pulled off one of the greatest achievements in modern conservation, which is not just the protection of the mountain gorillas but also the recovery of the gorilla population, which has quadrupled since 1985.”

The park’s mandate is not only to protect wildlife and Congolese people, but also to sustainably develop its natural resources for the 4 million Congolese who live within up to a day’s walk from its borders. One of its goals is to employ 30,000 local Congolese by 2022. International corporations, foreign mercenaries and the militias who often work with them see the park as one huge mine and/or oil well.

In “Virunga,” de Merode and the rangers engage in a battle to protect the park from SOCO International, the company then trying to explore for oil in Lake Edward. SOCO is a British company, listed on the London Stock Exchange, with a reputation for going into “controversial” environments like Virunga, a UNESCO World Heritage site. De Merode says he believes that makes them a very profitable company.

The Virunga National Park rangers are a highly trained fighting force, prepared to sacrifice their lives for the park and their people. Park Director Emmanuel de Merode says: “Since the war started in 1996, about 160 rangers have died. It’s important to emphasize that most of these rangers have died protecting the local people, not the wildlife.”

Under both Congolese and international law, any sort of oil exploitation in Virunga is illegal. Ignoring his country’s own laws, previous president Joseph Kabila gave SOCO an oil concession, half of which is in the park. De Merode nevertheless informed SOCO that their intentions were illegal. 

Then SOCO’s team forced their way across the park’s borders in a caravan of vehicles. They hired foreign mercenaries who subcontracted with M23 to terrorize and even kill rangers and Congolese people.

SOCO now says that it has ceased its efforts to explore for oil in Lake Edward due to international pressure. Whether that’s true or not, the park remains a target for those determined to seize its vast resources without regard for the wildlife or the Congolese.

In 2014, de Merode filed a report about SOCO’s illegal activities in the park with the Congolese authorities in Kinshasa, despite the fact that their most senior members, including DRC’s President Joseph Kabila, had granted the illegal oil concession. As he returned to the park de Merode was shot several times by unknown gunmen, but he survived. The heroic park rangers continue to defend the park, its wildlife and the surrounding Congolese people.

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. Please support her work on Patreon. She can be reached at ann@anngarrison.com.