Armed wardens even the odds in war zone of gorillas v guerillas

The Times of London
Virunga National Park, DR Congo

Ten gorillas were shot dead in 2007 (Jerome Delay/AP)

The mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park have been fighting their way back from the verge of extinction after being targeted by hunters seeking bushmeat, trophies or exotic pets. Now they are being defended against a new danger: the rebel army that has seized the nearby city of Goma.

The diversity of this nature reserve in eastern Congo is startling: glaciers, rivers and lakes, moorland, alpine forest, jungle and savannah, lava fields and active volcanoes, but its 3,000 square miles are also a hotbed of rebellions, militias and insecurity.

Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s chief warden, commands a 270-strong paramilitary outfit trained by British and Belgian Special Forces, tasked with protecting the most diverse nature reserve in Africa. When M23 rebels took control of a chunk of eastern Congo in July, the battle centred on Mr de Merode’s Rumangabo headquarters.

A quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas live in Virunga. They were found by scientists in 1902 but hunting and destruction of their habitat brought them close to extinction. By the 1980s there were only 250 left spread across the intersection of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Numbers have been increasing in recent years with the most recent World Wildlife Fund census estimating the population to be 880. The ranger station and its new tourist lodge sit on a forested ridge below the spike of Mount Mikeno, where the gorillas live, and within firing range of one of the country’s largest army barracks.

At the empty lodge Mr de Merode, 42, described combat helicopters firing rockets and bullets slapping into trees as staff and rangers’ families sheltered in the cellar. For days Mr de Merode and 40 of his rangers dug trenches and defended their headquarters against the army, the rebels and looters. It was, he said, “the highest level of violence I’ve seen”.

Virunga is used to violence. Since 1996 more than 130 rangers have been killed in shootouts with poachers, and militias; 14 have died in the past two years. Ten gorillas were shot dead in 2007 to scare rangers off meddling with the illegal charcoal trade, worth about £20 million a year.

Things had been improving for the gorilla. A 2008 rebellion, by some of those now leading M23, fizzled out and the last major rebel group was weakening. Tourist numbers grew from 550 in 2009 to 3,300 last year. Mr de Merode was expecting 5,000 this year, but that was before the war.

The conflict has allowed armed groups to proliferate. Unlike the national army, the rangers are armed, paid and fed, making them arguably the most effective arm of state security, and therefore a target for anti-government militias. Knowing that there is still hope for Virunga and the gorillas despite the current difficulties is what keeps the rangers going. “Protecting animals, protecting nature, is protecting life,” said Innocent Mburanumwe, a senior warden.