Standing up for Congo’s rare mountain gorillas
While dodging bullets and spears of poachers and rebels, Virunga National Park ranger Innocent Mburanumwe can put a 700-pound gorilla at ease with a few strategic grunts.
Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo
Deep in the jungles of Congo – half a day’s hike through knee-high tangles of roots seemingly designed to send humans tumbling to the rotting earth – park ranger Innocent Mburanumwe answers the grunt of a suspicious silverback gorilla.Skip to next paragraph
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Humba, the 700-pound leader of a family of 11 mountain gorillas, must quickly discern whether a group of five human intruders is harmless or should be attacked. He darts up on powerful legs, shoulder muscles rippling under a thick salt-and-pepper coat as he cranes his neck for a better view. Satisfied, Humba sinks back to his favorite position: sprawled on a nest of green, his pale chest facing the dark canopy above.
But seconds later, an anxious juvenile gorilla careens in from the other direction. Mr. Mburanumwe’s calm presence and pitch-perfect rolling grunts save clueless visitors from being mauled.
“If you look them in the eyes, they think you’re challenging them,” Mburanumwe whispers. With a side smile and a nod he signals to his group, now within a gorilla’s arm’s reach, to calmly kneel. “And remember: Don’t point at them!”
But protecting the few foreigners daring – or foolish – enough to visit Congo’s war-torn Virunga National Park is the least of Mburanumwe’s worries.
He’s far more concerned about the warring militias, armed poachers, and charcoal traders that make Virunga the most dangerous national park in the world. Congo’s complex and ever-shifting conflict has killed more than 5 million people in the past 10 years, and Virunga lies on one of the war’s seismic fault lines. Militias hide out in the park’s dense foliage, looting nearby villages, pillaging gold mines, and controlling the multimillion-dollar trade in charcoal made by peasants who chop down virgin forest in the park.
As the ranger in charge of gorilla monitoring for the Congolese Wildlife Authority, Mburanumwe leads a team that tracks, studies, and protects some of the last 720 mountain gorillas left on earth. (Congo has 211; the rest roam Uganda and Rwanda.) The team risks death daily. More than 120 Virunga rangers have been killed in the 10 years Mburanumwe has been a ranger. Four gorillas were killed execution style in the park in July of 2007.
This is not a job for the faint of heart. Last fall, Mburanumwe and all the rangers in the Rumangabo area where the park is headquartered had to flee their homes when Tutsi rebels swept through the area where the park is headquartered. “We’re accustomed to war, but what happened in September surprised all of us,” Mburanumwe says, adding that some of the rangers had to hike through the forest with their families for three days without food just to get to a safe town.
He came back in November to find his home pillaged, with bullets and old military uniforms scattered on the kitchen floor. When he went back to the gorilla monitoring base camp at Bukima, a 10-mile walk from his home, he found it being used as a training camp for rebels.
“It’s very dangerous, but we choose to protect nature. That’s our job,” he says. “The gorillas are rare. I don’t want them to disappear like the dinosaurs.”
In his jungle-green uniform, Mburanumwe’s quiet confidence commands respect. As he glides through villages with his butter-smooth stroll and diplomat’s wave, adults smile and bow their heads. Children chase after him.
“We’re accustomed to talking with the local people to get information about poachers,” he says. “It’s the people here who know best. It’s very important to talk with the population. Local people know we’re a sign of peace.”
It’s not easy to know whom to trust, though. In this lawless corner of one of the world’s most dysfunctional countries, there’s a complex and fluid swirl of alliances among several militias based on ethnicity, economics, and sheer terror. The ranger’s neutrality is crucial to his own well-being – and, by extension, the survival of the gorillas.