for National Geographic News
The Congolese government announced yesterday it has appointed Emmanuel de Merode, the son of Belgian royalty, to run the park, which has become a staging ground for warring militias in the Congo's long-standing civil war and was the site of a recent deadly attack on conservation workers. The former warden, Honore Mashagiro, was arrested in March in connection with the gorilla killings.
(See related story: Park Official Arrested in Gorilla Killings, March 25, 2008.)
Stepping Into the Cross Fire
Soft-spoken de Merode, 38, a prince, may seem an unlikely choice to steer Virunga National Park, a 2-million-acre (790,000-hectare) chunk of the Congo, out of chaos, but the Congolese wildlife authority—called the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, or ICCN—that appointed de Merode is counting on his conservation record and years of experience in the region.
"We are absolutely committed to taking all the necessary measures to protect the mountain gorillas and bring security to the people living around Virunga National Park," ICCN Director Cosma Wilungula said in a press release. "The new team that we have appointed is a major step toward achieving this goal."
According to the release from ICCN, de Merode's appointment is "a move by the Congolese authorities to strengthen the rule of law, step up anti-poaching and prevent forest destruction for charcoal in Africa's oldest national park."
Virunga National Park encompasses not only some of the planet's richest biodiversity—with more than a thousand animal species, the highest concentration of hippos anywhere in Africa, and nearly a third of the world's remaining mountain gorillas—but also a diverse array of complicated conservation roadblocks.
Amid the militia cross fire, there are also thousands of impoverished, and sometimes armed, villagers and refugees who mine the park for food, fuel, and a source of income—often in the form of illegally harvested animals or charcoal.
As warden, de Merode will oversee an armed force of 700 rangers. The rangers are hired by the ICCN—the country's wildlife authority, equivalent to the National Park Service in the United States, but not as well-funded.
The rangers' most highly publicized task has been the protection of the nearly 200 mountain gorillas that live on the eastern edge of the park, near the Rwandan border. (Learn more about the Virunga gorillas.)
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