Belgian Named New Warden of Troubled Gorilla Park

Nick Wadhams in Nairobi
for National Geographic News
August 07, 2008
The Democratic Republic of the Congo's troubled Virunga National Park, where the murder of several gorillas last year drew international attention, has a new warden.

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.)

"Virunga draws a huge amount of attention, and that's something that can be used positively," de Merode said.

Kemal Saiki, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission that runs patrols in Virunga, agreed.

"The tragedy of the Congo is that it is a forgotten, almost ignored conflict, a humanitarian catastrophe in slow motion that has dragged on for almost 15 years," he said.

"If the public and media interest generated by the killings of animals can shed light on the context and the plight of human beings, even if only briefly, so much the better."

De Merode added: "Those elements give the senior warden of the park some scope to have an impact. That said, the challenges are enormous."

One of the new warden's greatest challenges will be getting locals to care about the park and its wildlife, said Eugene Rutagarama, director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program Rwanda.

"When you look at Rwanda and Uganda, at least the government forces are in charge, and there is a lot of awareness among the community and the stakeholders. In [Congo], in spite of what has been happening, the reality is that the population isn't even aware of the importance of gorillas," he said.

Another obstacle will be safety. Death threats to park management are common, but the new warden says they are manageable.

"In practice, living in Congo is a question of understanding where the threats come from, seeing them coming before [they] hit you," de Merode said. "It's a question of organization. It's something that can be managed reasonably well, with a strong team, which is what we have."

Belgian Royalty

To European royalty-spotters, the name de Merode will be instantly recognizable. His great-great-grandfather, Count Felix de Merode, played a prominent role in Belgium's fight for independence from the Netherlands in 1830.

To mark the centenary of Belgium's independence, in 1931, all of Felix's direct descendants were given the title prince of Belgium.

There is also a town in Congo named Merode after another ancestor—a missionary who worked there.

It may strike an outsider as a great irony that a Belgian prince is set to take over management of one of the most important parks in the Congo, a country whose modern history was defined by the rapacious acts of an administration run first by Belgian King Leopold II and then by a colonialist Belgian government that left the Congolese people, at independence in 1960, wholly unprepared to go about the business of running a country.

Yet insiders say it is a logical choice.

Godefroid Wambale is a ranger in a northern section of the park.

"He's the right man at the right time," Wambale said. "We are close to Emmanuel, and we've worked with him for a long time. He is the right person because he knows everyone and he knows the difficulties."

De Merode's commitment to Virunga appears unchallenged. He has spent nearly a third of his life in the park and underwent military training with its rangers in South Africa in 2002.

He may be a Belgian prince, but he has never lived in Belgium. He was born in Tunisia and grew up in Kenya.

"My role has raised eyebrows," said de Merode. "It hasn't raised eyebrows as much with the Congolese administration and with my colleagues in Congo as it has with the non-Congolese community."

He added: "In 15 years, I've never once been made to feel uncomfortable for being Belgian within Congo. I've only ever felt welcome. I don't think I've ever even received a remark about my nationality."

Conservation—For a Price

De Merode takes a cool and logical view toward conservation.

He believes Western economic models should be applied to save Virunga National Park.

For years, conservationists around the world have expected—and demanded—that African nations preserve natural treasures such as Virunga, Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, and the lion population of South Africa, simply because it is the right thing to do, de Merode explains.

"That approach to conservation disregards a simple reality: For national parks to exist, poor rural communities are deprived of valuable land," de Merode said. "I have been a conservationist all my life and feel passionately about protecting wildlife, but it appalls me that the poorest should have to bear the cost of conservation."

De Merode said conservationists should be asked to pay to preserve the habitat they want to remain intact and that the country should profit from preserving parkland.

"That's market economics; that's how the world works," he said. "Why should African governments, African communities pay the price so that the world can have its beautiful parks?"

He added: "If I want those gorillas to survive, I have to accept that there's a price."

De Merode has already shown he can play the market.

From 2006 until recently he led the Nairobi-based conservation charity WildlifeDirect, whose founding mission was to eschew bureaucracy and allow anyone to contribute to causes directly and in tangible ways. (WildlifeDirect is a partner of the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

On the WildlifeDirect Web site donors can specify exactly where their funds go—it costs $15 for Congo ranger patrol rations, $35 for a pair of boots, or $60 for tents, for example.

That system has worked well for Virunga—$350,000 of the $500,000 that WildlifeDirect has raised so far went to Virunga's rangers—and it will be a central part of de Merode's work as warden. He wants to set up a system in which people overseas can pay a small sum to "own," or look after, an acre of Virunga.

Cracking Down

How will de Merode do under Virunga's pressure?

"He has incredible diplomacy skills, and he can help ease the most tense situations, from petty disputes in the camps to the huge problems between the rangers and rebels," said Will Deed, a former intern of de Merode's who now runs communications for the Mara Conservancy in Kenya.

"He doesn't exclude anyone. He keeps everyone involved. He doesn't boss people around, and I think that's why he gets a lot of respect," Deed added.

De Merode said his efforts to protect the park will focus on three areas: security, stopping the illegal charcoal trade in Virunga, and elevating the political standing of conservation in the region.

One of the main threats facing Virunga is charcoal harvesting, which threatens to destroy habitat for the park's treasured wildlife, especially for the endangered gorillas, he said.

"We have to find alternatives to charcoal organic briquettes and alternative fuels for households around the park," de Merode added.

ICCN rangers have begun cracking down on charcoal traders by erecting checkpoints along roads leading out of the forest.

If they can stop the illegal fuelwood harvest, they will both slow the park's destruction and ease the conflict, according to de Merode.

Conservationist Royalty

Educated in Kenya, de Merode went to university in London. He got his doctorate in biological anthropology at University College London and wrote a thesis about food security and the illegal bush-meat trade in northeastern Congo, then called Zaire.

He began working full-time in Virunga National Park in 2001, training rangers for the Zoological Society of London.

In 2003, de Merode married into what is the equivalent of conservationist royalty in Kenya. His wife is paleontologist Louise Leakey, daughter of Richard and Meave Leakey, fellow paleontologists who have made some of the most important fossil discoveries in Kenya in the 20th and 21st centuries.

(Louise and Meave Leakey are explorers-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.)

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