Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Emmanuel de Merode, flanked by bodyguards at Virunga headquarters, has led the national park through a particularly bloody decade.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty, Nat Geo Image Collection

Virunga National Park Sees Its Worst Violence in a Decade, Director Says

Gunmen recently killed five rangers and a driver—the park’s deadliest attack in recent history.

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Emmanuel de Merode’s flight had just landed when he switched on his cell phone and learned the news, by now all too familiar for the director of Virunga National Park: Another of the more than 700 rangers charged with protecting the vast reserve in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had been fatally shot on the job. De Merode had intended to spend time with his daughter, but instead he flew right back to Virunga.

Rachel Masika Baraka, 25, was killed on May 11 while trying to defend two British tourists from armed men who were kidnapping them. (The two were freed soon after, but it’s unclear whether the $200,000 ransom was paid.) Baraka is one of more than 170 rangers who have died during the past two decades protecting wildlife in the park and visitors who come to see the animals, particularly its famed mountain gorillas.

The wave of violence in Virunga today is the worst it’s been in 10 years, says de Merode, who took over as park warden in 2008. He says that 16 staff members have been killed during the past 12 months. A month before Baraka’s death, four armed men gunned down five rangers and a driver—the bloodiest attack in the recent history of the park, Africa’s oldest.

Virunga, which was designated a World Heritage Center in 1979, has earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous national parks in Africa. It is home to unparalleled biodiversity, including lions, elephants, and the rare mountain gorillas, which have been threatened by habitat loss from farming and unrest stemming from DRC’s two civil wars—one in the 1960s and the other from 1997 to 2003. The park remains vulnerable to attacks by anti-government rebels and local militia groups, problems compounded by elephant poaching, hunting for bush meat, unlicensed fishing, and tree cutting for charcoal.

De Merode, along with Virunga head ranger Innocent Mburanumwe, accepted the Rolex National Geographic Explorers of the Year award in 2015 on behalf of all the park’s rangers. Today he's speaking at the 2018 National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C., about the challenges Virunga’s rangers face as they fight to preserve one of Africa’s last wild places.

During the festival, we talked about what motivates people to become rangers, ways the park is safeguarding them, and how the mountain gorillas have managed to rebound. An edited version of our conversation follows.

What’s driving the increased violence in Virunga?

It’s part of an extremely complex situation in eastern Congo. It’s happening throughout the east—it’s not just specific to Virunga. There are enormous financial returns that are being drawn from the illegal extraction of natural resources from the park, estimated at over $170 million in 2017, and it represents one of the major sources of revenue for the armed militia in the region.

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Many of the recent attacks resulting in ranger deaths have involved the protection of civilians. Can you explain this?

In recent years the militia have been supplementing income by attacking vehicles that go through the park. There has been a huge number of civilian fatalities because of the high number of attacks. When people go through the park, it’s the park’s responsibility to make sure the people are safe, so that’s added to the responsibilities of Virunga’s rangers. They have to protect them, and that’s been incredibly difficult but also very successful. In 2015 there were a large number of attacks that resulted in 124 killings, serious injuries, or abductions of civilians. By 2016 that had diminished to 79, and in 2017 that was reduced to 24.

What’s contributing to that success?

There’s been very significant investment to increase the number of rangers, but even more importantly to give them high-level training to be able to do that work. The number of rangers has increased from 230 in 2011 to 731 today. Also what’s quite telling is that the average age of rangers has decreased from 49 to 29. That’s because we recruit them younger.

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A silverback emerges from the jungle in Virunga, home to critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Why would someone choose to be a ranger, given the extreme danger of the job?

All over the world people choose to do dangerous work for public service, so that’s one of the reasons—but there are others. It’s a professional career in a place where work of that kind is not readily available. There’s 70 percent unemployment in the area around Virunga. There’s also a long tradition of wildlife conservation. Virunga is where wildlife conservation was born in Africa, and many of the rangers who choose to become rangers are the children or grandchildren of rangers.

What’s it like to work somewhere where the threat of violence—to you, your colleagues—is always there?

In my case it’s my choice. All my life I’ve wanted to work in wildlife conservation, and there’s nowhere more spectacular in the world than Virunga. It’s the best life I could have as a conservationist. The risks tied to the job have to be managed. I’m the park’s director, so I’m very well protected by my colleagues. I don’t feel as unsafe as it may seem. I feel very safe in the hands of Virunga’s rangers.

How did you feel when you heard about Baraka’s death?

It’s the worst thing for somebody in my situation because ultimately I carry the responsibility. It’s happened so many times, but every time one of our rangers is killed, I feel overwhelming responsibility. There’s never too much that can be done to keep them safe, so you question a great deal when something as terrible as that happens. Those are the first emotions you feel, and thereafter you don’t have time for those sorts of emotions. You have to gather information and do your job, which is to ensure that nobody else is at risk and that the situation is brought under control as quickly as possible.

What’s being done to protect rangers?

The first thing of course is the training, equipment, and leadership they receive. That’s something we have to constantly develop and strengthen. And there are other things—rangers have begun to wear body armor the way modern law enforcement authorities would. The medical support they receive has been something we’re investing in. There’s also the question of a longer term strategy on how to confront violence. That’s really about engaging very vigorously with the local community, which is over four million people who live within a day’s walk of the park boundaries—to try to work with them to shift the economy away from what we could call a war economy, that’s tied to the trafficking of natural resources, toward a green economy that helps to rebuild the country.

Is there any reason to believe that the situation will get better for the rangers?

Obviously we live in hope that it will get better, but we have to plan on it getting significantly worse. Based on that assumption we’re obviously very concerned about the short-term future in particular, but the overwhelming sense I get from the team is that there’s a huge level of determination to keep going. Morale is actually surprisingly high despite the incredible difficulties they’ve faced during the past few months.

I’m sure one morale booster is the recent news that mountain gorilla numbers have increased to more than a thousand, up from 881 in 2011 and 380 in 2003.

The mountain gorillas really are the expression of what Virunga can achieve, which is this incredible success story. When I was 15, I remember my parents telling me that when I was older, I wouldn’t see mountain gorillas because they would have gone extinct. Tourism has played a part, local communities have been very active in protecting gorillas, but at the end of the day, if rangers aren’t there to protect them, then they would have been unlikely to survive and thrive the way they have.

Update: During de Merode's appearance at today's Explorers Festival, the National Geographic Society pledged $100,000 to help support Virunga's rangers.