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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.

When I started, I was first posted to where the gorillas were, even though I did not know about gorillas. After I had settled in and I had gotten used to the animals, I said, "I should stay here with the gorillas because these are gentle beings." We were told that these are very aggressive animals, but in time I realized that they are not. So it was worth staying here and protecting them.

Innocent: While I was still a trainee ranger, I pursued paramilitary training. I worked as a driver and chauffeured many conservationists. They eventually sent me on wildlife patrol assignments. I did patrols at several posts, and after that I was made in charge of identification of gorillas at the Mikeno Sector [a section of the park favored by many gorilla families].

What is the most satisfying aspect of your job?

Innocent: The best days I had were when there were many births in many [gorilla] families, and the worst days that we witnessed or experienced were when gorillas were killed. When there were massacres—on June 8 and on July 22 [in 2007]. We were very disturbed to see that. It was my first time to observe such a thing.

Diddy: Any day I see a gorilla is well and in its natural surroundings is a good day. It brings me so much joy that I don't need anything else, even food, while I am with the gorillas. But now that it has been eight months without any contact with the animals [beyond news from sources connected to the rebels], I am really uncomfortable.

What is the most difficult thing about your job?

Innocent: The most difficult thing about our work now is the numerous bandits embedded in the park—especially those moments when we come face-to-face with them. It has become very difficult for us to patrol the entire park because of this.

Diddy: When there is no security. The job itself is not difficult, but the insecurity that we have has made the work seem difficult.

Have there been situations where you feared for your life?

Diddy: Yes, that has happened, especially due to the wars. It was an extremely dangerous situation and everybody feared for their lives. Shortly after the killing of the gorillas we said to ourselves: "If someone was prepared to kill defenseless gorillas, they wouldn't think twice about killing rangers." (See "Wildlife Park Official Arrested in Gorilla Killings" [March 25, 2008].)

I therefore concluded that we are a lot more exposed than the animals.

Innocent: There are times when we are attacked or accosted by insurgents or armed bandits in the park. There have been some difficult moments where we feared for our lives, but we did not give up because of that and said we would go ahead and contribute to the protection of nature.

Do you have a favorite gorilla?

Diddy: Yes, definitely! My favorite gorilla was Mkunda of the Rugendo group, which was struck by the massacre. He is the one who used to guide the group, but unfortunately I do not know if this group still exists. The adult female leaders of the group were all massacred, and we don't know anything more about the smaller females that were pregnant.

I like Mkunda because every time we did the regular, formal check-up routines in the forest, this blackback gorilla would sense that there was another group in the vicinity and would guide the silverbacks and other members of the family to go along and see what family they were from, or even prepare for war. So, I thought, this blackback would make a good silverback, or leader, someday since he knows how to protect the family, even to the point of combat.

Innocent: I have a blackback called Kadogo. I liked that gorilla because he was born with a [bald] patch on his head. I asked myself why he was the only one like that among all these others in the wilderness. I don't know why, but it impressed me very much to see a gorilla with a [bald] patch like an old man among humans.

Is he still there?

Innocent: I do not know, since we abandoned our sector during the war. I do not know if he is still living.

How has using the Internet and blogs to make a connection with people all over the world changed your work?

Innocent: It has been very useful because we used to be out of sight—but now with the Internet we have emerged. When we report from the field, it is immediately viewed on the Internet, and everybody can read it. It has truly advanced us in terms of work.

Diddy: It has helped a lot. With the Internet, I found that there are other conservationists outside my country. I used to think I was the only one with just my friends by my side, but with the blog, I realized that there are conservationists outside our country who like nature just like we do—they encourage [those of] us who are somewhat isolated.

Recently many high-profile journalists and even diplomats have come to Virunga. What do you think of this attention?

Diddy: Well, our first impression was that our cries for help, which we sent outside the country as well as inside the country, were heard by the people, and that boosted our morale. It gave us encouragement. It gave us more motivation to continue writing and to go about our daily lives.

Innocent: We are always pleased to see the journalists coming to assist us, especially now, since it allows us to be able to carry on with work even during the war.

There are currently people in the park's Mikeno Sector working as rangers for the rebels and the army. (These groups can earn extra income from tourists who are still interested in coming to see the gorillas.) What are your thoughts about that?

Diddy:I think there has been some infighting that has turned out to be very negative for the people and for ICCN because some people are taking advantage of ICCN's absence and causing sentiments and discussions that are anti-conservationist, if I may say so.

Regarding the people who work with them, I do not know whether these people know the [safety] regulations for when they come into contact with gorillas and other forest animals. That is my biggest fear.

Innocent: In fact they do not work like we used to because since our people left the sector there has not been any follow-up to identify the individual gorillas.

We are also concerned that the gorillas can catch diseases and that the people in the sector now do not know how to identify a gorilla that is sick from one that is well. It is a worrying situation and one that is increasingly delicate for us.

What would you say to tourists who would like to go and see the gorillas in the park now?

Diddy: I would not encourage them at this very moment. ... I do not think they [the loyalists or rebels] have control over security in the sector, and for that I would be concerned about the tourists' safety.

Innocent: By all means it is not a good thing to go see the gorillas now, since they are not checked routinely. [Also] when the tourists go to see the gorillas, they will pay the insurgents money that should instead go toward assisting in the development of the community. When the insurgents receive that money, all of it goes into their pockets and they do not think about the community.

Finally, how did you get your names?

Diddy: "Diddy" is the short form of "Dieudonné," [which is a French name]. Those close to me preferred not to use a long name so they shortened it. It started when I played soccer when I was younger. When you are small and you are out playing, people would rather use a shorter form so things get going faster.

Innocent: It is my dad who [was also a ranger and] gave me the name when I was baptized as a Catholic.
 

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