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New Head of Gorilla Sanctuary Persuades Congo Army to Exit National Park

One of the hottest fronts in the fight for conservation has got to be Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to one of the last remaining populations of mountain gorillas. “Intense negotiations” led by the new director of the park, Emmanuel de Merode, has apparently resulted in the withdrawal of more...


One of the hottest fronts in the fight for conservation has got to be Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to one of the last remaining populations of mountain gorillas.

“Intense negotiations” led by the new director of the park, Emmanuel de Merode, has apparently resulted in the withdrawal of more than a thousand Congo Army troops from the park, it was announced today.

“Demilitarizing Virunga National Park remains our greatest and most difficult challenge. The Congolese National Army has taken the first step, which represents a major breakthrough at a time when the threats to the park have never been greater,” de Merode said in a press statement.

Photo Paul Zahl/NGS

WWF contributed $10,000 toward the cost of redeploying the troops outside the park–a three-day operation that required additional trucks and funds for fuel to transport some 6,000 people, including the troops and their families.

Still within the borders of the park are the rebel forces led by renegade General Laurent Nkunda, an armed group that occupies and controls the gorilla habitat.

“Our main thrust remains to try to get back into the gorilla sector,” de Merode told me today. “We’ve been blocked from the sector for just over a year now. It’s not easy at the moment because of the renewed fighting, which was very heavy earlier today, but if there is a release of tension, it could give us an opportunity.”

The two sides in the shooting war in the national park signed a ceasefire months ago. But fierce fighting erupted between Nkunda’s forces and the Congo Army just before dawn six days ago, according to Gorilla Protection, a blog published by Virunga’s rangers. The blog is sponsored by WildlifeDirect, a Kenya-based charity that de Merode used to direct, and which is supported by the National Geographic Society.

Gorilla Protection is where to go to be briefed about the situation in Virunga–and to join a global community to support the rangers.

07gorilla 4.jpg

National Geographic has a long association with Virunga, which is famous mostly for the embattled gorillas that live on the slopes of the park’s volcanoes, but which is also home to elephants, hippos, and many of Africa’s other amazing wildlife.

Photo Michael Nichols/NGS

I have on my desk the January 1970 issue of National Geographic Magazine, for which Dian Fossey wrote an article “Making Friends With Mountain Gorillas.” Upon the recommendation of eminent anthropologist Louis Leakey, National Geographic had assisted Fossey to live with and study the gorillas.

Fossey began her work with the National Geographic grants in 1967, first in Virunga and then later on the Rwanda side of the volcanoes. She spent thousands of hours observing the great apes, winning their trust and adding immeasurably to what we know about gorillas. She went on to write a best-selling book, Gorillas in the Mist.

Even in the 1960s Fossey had to deal with political turmoil in the region. There was also a problem with poachers, and she once donned a Halloween mask and frightened the intruders away, the magazine reported in the 1970 coverage.

To this day no one knows for sure who murdered Dian Fossey in her cabin in 1985. Some speculation suggested it was poachers. She was buried alongside her beloved gorillas, many of which had been killed by poachers.

Fast forward to 2006 and National Geographic News coverage of the ongoing chaos in Virunga. The entire region was, and is, caught up in the swirl of the region’s civil wars, genocide, and the misery of millions of people trying to eke out daily survival.

In 2006 we reported that hippopotamuses were being butchered by the hundreds inside Virunga. An aerial survey put the hippo population in Virunga at 629, a 98 percent crash in numbers since the 1970s, when there were some 30,000 animals.

The killing was blamed on Congolese militia operating inside the park. The rebels were believed to be eating and selling hippo meat and taking the animals’ teeth for ivory.

National Geographic News ran a series of articles in 2007about the execution of gorillas, including allegations that the former chief of the park might have been involved in the killings.

gorilla baby.jpgA baby mountain gorilla was left orphaned and fighting for its life after its mother was shot and killed in eastern Congo, African wildlife workers reported.  Read the story.

Photograph © Rob Muir, Frankfurt Zoological Society 

Only last week we reported that since the beginning of this year, armed groups, soldiers, and poachers have killed 10 percent of the elephants in Virunga–allegedly driven by rising Chinese demand for ivory–park officials said. Rangers patrolling the lawless central sector of Virunga had discovered the bodies of seven elephants in the past two weeks alone.

For the rangers that are genuinely trying to protect the park and the gorillas it hasn’t been easy. More than 110 rangers have died in the line of duty over the last decade–one every month for ten years.


Wildlife rangers Innocent Buranumwa, left, and Diddy Mwanaki have patrolled Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for more than a decade. Working under the threat of attack and sometimes without rations or pay, they help monitor and protect the park’s endangered mountain gorilla population. Read their story Inside the Gorilla Wars: Rangers on Risking It All.

Photograph courtesy Virunga National Park/ICCN 

Into all this stepped Emmanuel de Merode as Virunga’s new chief warden.

“For national parks to exist, poor rural communities are deprived of valuable land,” de Merode told National Geographic News contributor Nick Wadhams last month, after his appointment was announced. “I have been a conservationist all my life and feel passionately about protecting wildlife, but it appalls me that the poorest should have to bear the cost of conservation.”

De Merode told Wadhams that conservationists should be asked to pay to preserve the habitat they want to remain intact and that the country should profit from preserving parkland.

“That’s market economics; that’s how the world works,” he said. “Why should African governments, African communities pay the price so that the world can have its beautiful parks?”

De Merode is right. Much of the trouble besetting Virunga and its gorillas stems from the absolute poverty of the region. People with no fuel to cook their food, if they have food at all, have no reason to stay out of a lush sanctuary burgeoning with resources. Even gorillas would be food to people hungry enough.

The problem for de Merode, and indeed for many other wildernesses under similar siege around the world, is whether there is enough time, interest, and willingness on the part of wealthier nations to help pay for the protection of Virunga. That would mean paying not only for rangers and equipment but also to make it worthwhile to the surrounding communities to keep the park intact. Something like paying rent.

Virunga is a story worth watching. Its destiny could be a harbinger for what happens to much of the rest of the world’s last wild places.

Watch this video of Emmanuel de Merode talking about Virunga and conservation.


Who Murdered the Virunga Gorillas? (National Geographic Magazine, July 2008)

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn