Inside the Gorilla Wars: Rangers on Risking It All

Tasha Eichenseher
for National Geographic News
June 16, 2008

For more than a decade, Diddy Mwanaki and Innocent Buranumwa have patrolled the often hostile terrain of Virunga National Park, a 2-million-acre (790,000-hectare) pocket of land along the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.

Employed by Congo's national parks authority, the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN), they monitor six families of endangered mountain gorillas and lead ecotourism efforts. Or they did, before civil war spilled into the park.

The lush volcanic slopes of the Virunga mountains are now a battleground for militia groups and the Congolese army, which have kept wildlife rangers out of the forest for the last eight months. Another danger comes from poachers, driven by poverty to hunt the park's gorillas for meat and sale. In addition, locals are cutting down trees to feed the demand for charcoal. (Learn more about the situation in Virunga National Park.)

For Virunga rangers, the risk of being kidnapped, injured, or killed is a stark reality. More than 110 rangers have died in the line of duty over the last decade, including Buranumwa's brother.

Over the last year, the rangers have focused their efforts on stopping charcoal traffickers and have become media-savvy bloggers, photographers, videographers, and educators who reach tens of thousands of people around the world through a Web site hosted by the nonprofit conservation program WildlifeDirect, a partner of the National Geographic Society.

National Geographic News interviewed Innocent and Diddy, as they are known familiarly on their blog, about their work and passion. Both men are from Congo. Diddy has worked as a ranger at Virunga for about 18 years, and Innocent has been there for 11 years.

A ranger's life is difficult. You work in a war zone, at times without pay or food rations. How do you get by?

Diddy: There have been many moments when we worked without getting paid, without food.

When there aren't problems associated with the war, some people, including some guards, maintain small farms near the park border. From the harvest we could borrow food and make ends meet as we waited for a paycheck.

Innocent: We are assigned to protect nature, and as such we cannot abandon this work.

How did you choose your profession?

Diddy: All my life I have always loved nature. There is no life without nature, so I realized that this is what I should focus on. I have no interest in going anywhere else, whether paid or not. I prefer to remain here surrounded by nature, where I see the flora and fauna that fascinate many of those who do not have it.

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