Chief Warden Shot in Africa's Oldest National Park

Belgian Emmanuel de Merode was ambushed in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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.

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.

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."

Virunga National Park is the most biodiverse park in Africa.

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.

In 2008, 120 rangers returned to their headquarters in Virunga after being pushed out by violence.

"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."

In November 2008, rangers got their first sighting of mountain gorillas in 15 months.

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.

Merode oversaw the return of rangers to their homes, which had been looted, in 2008.

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."

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