A still from "Virunga"

When war comes to paradise: What it's like to defend the planet's most threatened park

More than 140 rangers have died protecting Virunga, Africa's oldest national park. Emmanuel de Merode explains why

Lindsay Abrams
November 3, 2014 12:00AM (UTC)

Emmanuel de Merode was born a Belgian prince, but he has spent most of his life fighting to protect Virunga, Africa's oldest national park and what's been called "the most dangerous place in the world to try to practice wildlife conservation." Occupying 3,000 square miles in the eastern Congo, the UNESCO world heritage site is home to many of the world's few remaining mountain gorillas. De Merode calls it a "Holy Grail for conservation."

The threats -- to the endangered species, the park's resources and the people charged with protecting them -- are enormous. The gorillas are targeted by poachers and, in one horrific incident in 2007, were murdered en masse, an act of revenge believed to be linked to the illegal charcoal trade. Opportunists are determined to illegally tap the park's reserves of oil, as well, and solely by virtue of its location, it's been the site of armed conflict -- including the deadly M23 rebellion.


As the park's director, de Meronde oversees a team of rangers who constantly put their lives in danger for the sake of the park. More than 140 have died in the effort, and "Virunga," a new documentary chronicling the park's struggle to survive, opens with footage from one of their funerals. Days before the film premiered at Sundance, de Meronde himself was ambushed by gunmen and shot four times, in the stomach and legs. He survived, and if anything, the incident seems to have strengthened his resolve. "You have to keep going," de Merode told Salon, "because if you don’t, who else will?"

Check out the trailer for the documentary (which comes to Netflix Nov. 7) below, and then read on for Salon's conversation with de Merode:


This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

I was hoping you could start just by telling me a little bit about what brought you to Virunga, and how your role there has evolved in the time you’ve been the park's director.

Well, it goes back a long way. I grew up in Kenya as a child, and over that period I grew up in a community that was very attached to the natural world, to the wildlife of eastern Africa. It was every child’s dream, in a sense, to work with wildlife and to become a ranger, and that stuck with me. During that time we used to really look to Congo as this incredible place, and in particular, Virunga was kind of in a way a Holy Grail for conservation. It had absolutely everything -- these incredible mountains in the center of Africa, mountain gorillas, these amazing savannas, and so on. So I eventually went to Congo on my own. We didn’t have funding back then so I bought a motorbike and ended up driving across east Africa and into Congo. I arrived in Virunga and was just incredibly welcomed by the rangers there at the time. So while it was Virunga’s amazing wildlife and amazing landscapes that brought me there, really it was the rangers that kept me in Virunga for 20 years. I’ve been there ever since.


One of the things that the documentary really drives home is just how many different threats you face all at once. The poachers, the oil companies coming in, the war and conflict … where do you even begin protecting wildlife in the face of all of that?

Yeah, we kind of picked the short straw when it comes to threats to a protected area. I would imagine Virunga is the most threatened park on the planet in many ways, and of course much of it is tied to two things. The first is that it’s a park that’s surrounded by over 4 million people who live within a day’s walk of the park’s boundary, so there’s this huge demographic pressure around the park that we have to address. The second thing is the political situation, the situation of armed conflict that’s been going on for 20 years now since the Rwandan genocide. Of course, it’s not just simply the fact that there’s this terrible war going on that’s caused the deaths of over 6 million people in the Congo, it’s also the underlying causes of that war, which are tied to the illegal exploitation of natural resources. Of course, it being a park, it’s full of those natural resources, and so the conflict gets drawn to Virunga. In fact, every war that’s happened since 1996 has started either in or immediately around Virunga. It’s a park that has suffered the full brunt of the civil war, and because of that we’ve lost over 140 of our staff -- they have been killed, mainly by these armed militias, these armed groups that live in and around the park.


Do you ever wonder whether it’s worth the risk to yourself and to your rangers to be trying to protect wildlife in this environment? How do you weigh the risk and determine when it becomes too much?

I think about risk every minute of every day. It’s something we’re constantly dealing with, and as the park’s director, I worry an enormous amount about my staff and the fact that, as their commanding officer, I put them in harm’s way every day. That’s probably my biggest concern of all, but I never question it, partly because as a team we don’t question it. We took on this job, which was to protect the park, and you don’t get to choose your battles. You have to keep going, because if you don’t, who else will? We’re the ones who’ve been assigned to do that work, and there’s too much at risk. It’s not just the park and its incredible wildlife, though it’s one of the greatest parks on earth. There’s no park that has such an incredible diversity of landscapes and of species … But it’s also because the park represents the best chance we have at relaunching the economy in the conflict-affected areas of eastern Congo, through the resources that can be sustainably developed, like tourism and electricity from the park’s rivers. So it’s an incredible resource base in terms of its global value for the whole of humanity, but also in terms of the economic future of the people of eastern Congo. Because of all that we don’t really have a choice; we have to keep working.

You were shot right before the film premiered, and so it wasn’t something that was included in the documentary. What was that experience like? Did it change things at all for you?


It changed a few things. We will have to be more careful about security, but of course, one of the realities of these kinds of situations -- and, you know, many people have experienced it -- is that we’re trying to achieve something. We’re trying to recover the park, to restore it to what it once was, and also trying to make it a key part of the peace-building process in eastern Congo, and that’s an incredible objective to try to achieve. We’ve still got a long way to go. One reality is that the closer you get to that target, the more you become the target. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are intent on exploiting the park’s resources illegally -- because it’s highly profitable, it’s a very, very rich region -- and by doing it illegally they’re doing it very destructively. One of those is the advent of illegal oil in the region, which has been driven by a British company. It’s one of many actors that are trying to profit from the park’s resources through an activity that under Congolese law is illegal. Those are all things that we really have to address, and take very seriously.

What happened to me … what we do know is that it was a planned attack. We don’t know who it was, but it does seem to relate to this growing number of people who are not happy with the fact that Congolese rangers are now doing their work and protecting the park.

That company, Soco, has said that it halted oil exploration in Virunga, but it seems some are questioning its sincerity. Are they still an active threat to the region?


Unfortunately, the way the evidence is drawn out is that Soco International, the oil company, has not altered its position or its program. It hasn’t changed at all. It’s true that it completed the seismic surveys, and because of this it’s withdrawn for a while to analyze those data. But that was planned right from the beginning, so it’s a complete misconception to interpret that as a withdrawal from the park. Unfortunately, the World Wildlife Fund seems to have made an error of judgment on that and endorsed Soco’s position, so that’s why there’s a general belief that the crisis is over. But it’s not at all; it’s still very much a crisis, and we’re completely concerned about their behavior.

Are there other big oil threats on the horizon as well?

I’m not a geologist, so I’m not qualified to really say very much about the risks of extracting oil from a national park -- I mean, there are many cases where it’s had enormous damage because accidents happen. What I can say as a law enforcement officer working for the National Parks Service is that a brazen rejection of the law -- when large companies act illegally -- that has enormous damage and enormous consequences for the region. It’s simply because it’s a park that’s under enormous pressure and if you’re preventing impoverished Congolese farmers from entering the park to build their livelihoods, you have to be consistent. You have to do the same to multinational companies. If you don’t then you get a breakdown of the rule of law, and terrible things happen in a vulnerable society like what you have in eastern Congo, where the political situation is inherently unstable. It’s a very, very serious issue, and it goes right down to the problem of chronic insecurity and armed conflict.

What do you say to people in the Congo who believe or are told that they can profit from oil exploitation, who might welcome a company like Soco coming in?


Yes, that’s the message that Soco has gone to great lengths to communicate. What we feel is that real development -- real economic development, that kind of development that gives a future to a young generation of Congolese -- comes from sustainable development. And there’s huge potential for that through tourism, which, in a country like Kenya, which is not so far away, generated $3.5 billion in 2010. That’s more than Congo’s national budget, and Congo is a country that’s over eight times bigger than Kenya and has a huge tourism potential.

There are other things as well: We’re working very hard on the energy sector. So not oil, but sustainable energy through small, community-based hydroelectricity plants outside the park. We’ve estimated that by developing that we can create over 100,000 jobs around the park. One hundred thousand jobs isn’t just the livelihoods for over half a million families, for half a million people, it’s also the potential to create stability in the region. You have to consider the fact that the armed militias, who are the source of this terrible civil war, they’re between 5,000 and 8,000 people. You’re giving an alternative to all sorts of people, including those who, often through lack of options, have taken up arms to fight each other.

Really, those are the things we need to focus on. There’s tourism, there’s energy, there’s sustainable agriculture, fisheries, all the resources that can be developed from the park and really offer a much more prosperous future to the region than that single, very destructive activity which is going on at the moment in relation to oil.

I have to say, after watching this film, I don’t know if my first reaction was to want to come to Virunga as a tourist, what with all of the chaos and violence that's portrayed. Are you worried that the film might discourage the tourism industry?


I think it will discourage a lot of people, but we don’t need a lot of people to develop tourism in Virunga. We just need those few pioneers who are prepared to come and experience something absolutely extraordinary. Of course, from our perspective, it's something we need to be incredibly careful with, and it’s something we always have been incredibly careful with. We’ve been developing tourism when the conditions allow it; for instance, between 2009 and 2011 we had a period of peace, and we had about 6,000 people come to Virunga. Not a single incident happened with respect to those 6,000 people. They all went home incredibly happy with the experience of coming to Virunga, and that’s because we will only take them to those parts of the park that we know are safe and we invest enormous amounts of effort and resources, with respect to our rangers, to keep them safe. The record, so far -- and it’s something we’ll do everything to maintain, to ensure that they’re absolutely safe, because we measure that risk and we take every precaution -- is actually very, very good for Virunga. It is counterintuitive, but sometimes when there are risks you take them much more seriously, and then that enables you to keep people safe.

You yourself are a foreign national in this country that has been besieged by foreign interests ... Do you feel any conflict with that? How do you reconcile the role you’re playing in the Congo and in Virunga?

My job is made very simple by the fact that I was appointed above all to uphold the law. If anybody breaks those laws then I have to inform them that they’re breaking the law, and if they continue to do so then I have to take action. I have the authority to be able to do that as a park warden. I’m also a court officer, and employed by the Congolese government as a law enforcer, so I have a responsibility and an obligation to take action against whoever it is, even if it’s a powerful multinational. In many ways, that’s all there is to it. We have to follow our duty with respect to that.

Lindsay Abrams

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Congo Conservation Documentaries Emmanuel De Merode Gorillas M23 Video Wildlife

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