National Geographic News
Photo of Emmanuel De Merode.

Emmanuel de Merode, pictured here at Rumangabo Ranger Headquarters in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, is a leading advocate of conservation in the DRC.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published April 16, 2014

The chief warden of Africa's oldest and most biodiverse national park was shot Tuesday, the latest incident in a years-long string of violence that has plagued a part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo known for its mountain gorillas and hippos.

Belgian prince Emmanuel de Merode, 43, was ambushed on a road in Virunga National Park, according to Joanna Natasegara, a spokesperson for the park. More than 140 rangers have been killed in the line of duty there in the past decade, she said.

Merode was shot in the stomach and legs with four bullets as he traveled alone on a main road, en route from the nearby city of Goma to Rumangabo Ranger Headquarters. "He is in a very stable condition and in good spirits," Natasegara said.

Emmanuel de Merode speaks about the dangers of protecting Virunga in 2008.

Natasegara said authorities don't have information on the alleged attackers. Another ranger was killed about a month ago, and another before that in December.

Much of the violence has stemmed from conflicts with armed guerrillas who live inside the park.

Virunga is "the most dangerous place in the world to try to practice wildlife conservation," said National Geographic photographer Brent Stirton, who has worked there extensively.

Stirton called Merode "the most committed person I have met in my entire career."

Photo of the jungle inside Virunga National Park.
Virunga National Park is the most biodiverse park in Africa.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images

Searching for a Motive

The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group of guerrillas who have been living in the park since 1996, is accused of committing atrocities in Rwanda and hiding out across the border in Virunga.

"They have consistently tried to exploit the park to their own needs and have repeatedly clashed with the rangers," Stirton said. (See a timeline of violence in Virunga.)

The park is full of wilderness and is two million acres (790,000 hectares), making it larger than Israel, so policing it is difficult, especially with limited government funding.

"[The FDLR] does everything from robbing trucks that pass through to crimes against local citizens, to animal poaching, to whatever they can do to make money, regardless of the rule of law," Stirton said.

The photographer said that Merode lives primarily in Virunga and often travels alone "because he knows he is a target."

The warden has publicly opposed oil interests that would like to drill in the park, a stance that has made him some enemies.

Photo of de Merode addressing the park rangers.
In 2008, 120 rangers returned to their headquarters in Virunga after being pushed out by violence.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images

"Duty to Protect"

A Belgian prince, Merode grew up in eastern Africa and was trained as an anthropologist. He went to the Congo in 1993 and Virunga in 2001, where he has helped the country's government improve protections for the park.

He was appointed chief warden in 2008 and oversees about 680 rangers. The prior warden, Honore Mashagiro, had been arrested in connection with a high-profile killing of gorillas in the park. (Read "Who Murdered the Virunga Gorillas?" in National Geographic magazine.)

In 2005, Merode co-founded WildlifeDirect, a conservation group that supports wildlife rangers in remote and dangerous areas. He is married to Louise Leakey, a paleontologist who is best known for her work in Kenya and who is a National Geographic explorer.

"It is our duty to protect the mountain gorillas and all the other flora and fauna in the park," Merode wrote in his official biography. "We owe it to our children and our grandchildren."

Photo of a park ranger and a baby gorilla.
In November 2008, rangers got their first sighting of mountain gorillas in 15 months.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images

Source of Hope?

Despite the region's struggles with violence, instability, and poverty, including recent civil wars, Natasegara calls Virunga "a source of hope for the future."

Established in 1925, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.

Virunga is home to about a quarter of the 880 wild mountain gorillas left in the world. It is also the only park in the world to host three species of great apes, including the eastern lowland (Grauer's) gorillas and chimpanzees.

Virunga has more than a thousand animal species, including the highest concentration of hippos anywhere in Africa.

Photo of Emmanuel De Merode walking down a road.
Merode oversaw the return of rangers to their homes, which had been looted, in 2008.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images

Tourism reopened in the park about two years ago, after a break due to civil war. Stirton calls Virunga "a top five ecotourism destination in the world," and says tourism is the long-term solution to the region's economic problems. He adds that, to his knowledge, tourists have not been targeted by violence in the park.

In a National Geographic video from 2008, Merode called Virunga Africa's most important park, adding that it forms the backbone of the region's Albertine Rift.

When asked if he was concerned about his own safety in the park, Merode said he was aware of the risks and that "they had to be managed."

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

17 comments
sean mckinney
sean mckinney

Emmanuel those gone before you centuries ago led armies of men to conquer new colonies and the spoils of these countries. I salute you sir for your leadership, your quality as a man, and human being! You lead your rangers to conquer the evils of man and protect all that live and belong in Virunga especially the mountain gorrilas. You are a fortunate man - our god has chosen your path and I am certain he will continue to watch over you and your team as you soldier forward.

Respectfully yours 

Pat Young
Pat Young

Virunga Chief Warden Emmanuel De Merode returned to work 36 days after being shot multiple times.

Liane Brewer
Liane Brewer

I wish all of these amazing heroe's and protectors of this extrordianry andbeautiful wildlife park all the luck that they deserve, and hope they are able to reach their desired goals.

Weina Dinata
Weina Dinata

What an amazing man! Very dedicated and committed. We need more people like him in this world.

Delta Willis
Delta Willis

A documentary about Virunga will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC this week (April 23)

Paul Verheecke
Paul Verheecke

Sorry, after rereading I discover oil interests are mentioned. In the belgian press they are the first suspects of this crime.

Park established in 1925 : So by the belgian colonial administration ?

Paul Verheecke
Paul Verheecke

Well wishes to prince de Mérode. However, I'm surprised not to find any mention to oil searching in the area, fiercely opposed by the gardians of the natural park.

Andy Chan Kum See
Andy Chan Kum See

you are a crusader of the wild.be strong and be on your feet again.I salute and thank you.


Usman Isa
Usman Isa

people all sorts of things for money,especially in Africa.

Anna Charles-Smith
Anna Charles-Smith

Violence and destruction must be denounced in Africa and everywhere.

A very focused, dedicated and courageous young man, Prince Emmanuel de Merode.  Best wishes for a total and speedy recovery.

Steve W.
Steve W.

Finally, royalty that acts royally!

Chrissy C.
Chrissy C.

What an incredibly brave an selfless man!  Emmanuel, I wish you a speedy recovery, and thank you for the work you're doing to preserve The Virunga National Park!  I would love to come visit someday! 

Dyah Sundari
Dyah Sundari

very full risk job. very dedicated he is. I'm sure the number of gorilla will be increase like lion's.

Debra Desarmeaux
Debra Desarmeaux

'Brave is only those with a clear vision of the future,

and glory and danger withstanding,

go

   out

             to

                   meet

                              it."

-paraphrased from Thucydides, 460-395 B.C.,  Father of Scientific History.


Swift healing! 



Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

This man deserves a big raise! He is putting his life on the line to protect the animals and local people that cannot defend themselves. The world needs more people like him!!! Good luck, And get well soon.

Jan Miller
Jan Miller

Please post or tell me where to look for an update on  this incredible man

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