Ranger Killed, Others Injured in Africa's Oldest National Park

Scores of rangers have been killed in Virunga National Park in recent years. But 2015 had been relatively peaceful.

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Patrick Karabaranga, a warden at Virunga National Park, plays with an orphaned mountain gorilla.

One park ranger is dead and three more are injured in Africa's oldest national park after a recent firefight with rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The death marks the first ranger killed since January in Virunga National Park, which is home to famed mountain gorillas and has lost 140 rangers to violence in the past few years.

“Armed rebels came to attack our position,” Innocent Mburanumwe, a conservation ranger in the park, said in an interview Friday.

The attack happened June 18, as rebels worked to take control of Edward Lake in the center of the park, Mburanumwe said. He said they were driven away after an exchange of gunfire. Ranger Kasereka Sikwaya, known as Timor, lost his life.

“The situation is now very calm and the area is now secure,” says Mburanumwe, who is a National Geographic emerging explorer. The injured rangers are receiving medical treatment. (Contribute to Virunga's Fallen Rangers Fund.)

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A rebel is seen in Congo in 2009. Wars continue in the region, threatening national parks and local people.

The rebels most likely wanted control of Lake Edward for transportation and for access to illegal fishing, says Mburanumwe.

Virunga, a World Heritage site, is one of the most contested zones on Earth and has been at the center of the DRC's civil wars for decades. The ongoing conflict decimated the mountain gorilla population—all of DRC's mountain gorillas live in Virunga—and damaged surrounding communities.

But thanks to its committed force of rangers Virunga is undergoing a resurgence. The mountain gorilla population has increased to 880.

But the recent violence is a reminder that the park is still vulnerable.

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Rangers are briefed in 2008 in Virunga after recent violence.

"Virunga is an extreme case of what's happening with many of Africa's parks," park director Emmanuel de Merode told National Geographic in an interview earlier this month. "These are often areas incredibly rich in wildlife resources, and they have financial value, which invariably creates conflict over access to those resources."

"That has been accentuated in Virunga because it's at the heart of the armed conflict that has been happening in the eastern Congo," he said. "That has created a very volatile situation that Virunga's rangers have had to manage for many years, under very difficult circumstances."

De Merode has attended funerals for 22 park rangers who have been killed since he became Virunga's director. "It's the hardest part of my job," he said in the interview earlier this month. "As their commanding officer, I feel responsible, because they came into harm's way on my orders. Tragically, it's been a repeated incident, so I'm extremely and very painfully aware of the risks I put my staff in.

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Rangers watch over a mountain gorilla in 2008.

De Merode and Mburanumwe were recently named the Rolex National Geographic Explorers of the Year on behalf of all the rangers of Virunga National Park.

While in in Washington, DC to accept the prize, De Merode lamented the news media's lack interest in the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and said that Virunga's natural resources were being exploited to finance it.

"The illegal exploitation of resources is almost universally recognized as the underlying driver behind a civil war that has caused the deaths of over six million people," he said. "So we owe it to the people of eastern Congo to address these issues of natural resource management. That's really what the park is about."

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