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.
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If the threat from rebels weren’t enough (three rangers were killed by them since January) poachers frequently attack the rangers with guns, spears, and arrows. Nearly every day, rangers find snares in the forest designed to trap gorillas that fetch $8,000 or more on the black market for exotic animals.Skip to next paragraph
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Then there are the everyday natural dangers, such as landslides and angry water buffaloes, one of which mangled a ranger’s arm a few months ago.
It’s enough to make the average person look for another line of work. Indeed, Mburanumwe – who doesn’t have a university degree but has training in biology, wildlife preservation, and paramilitary skills – could find safer, more lucrative work in Goma, the nearest city. He could have joined the tens of thousands of Congolese selling the country’s gold, tin, copper, and cobalt to the highest bidder. He could have been a militia leader. But he’s the son of another park ranger and he just can’t see doing anything else.
“I can’t stop doing this job, it’s in my blood,” says Mburanumwe, who grew up on the edge of the park and remembers seeing his first gorilla at age 6. “When I was young, I saw my dad put on the uniform and it became a preoccupation. He would say: ‘Nature gives us life, so we must protect it.’ When we went into the forest and saw the birds and the trees – all the things God created – it was so mysterious. I decided that I, too, wanted to wear the uniform one day.”
Gorillas are viewed locally as close cousins to humans who just happened one day to turn off deep into the jungle while humans went the other way evolving into a more advanced species, says Mburanumwe. “We consider them our brothers. When you look them in the eye, it’s like they’re trying to communicate.”
His dad, Silvestre Mburanumwe, who still works as a ranger, gushes with pride to see the son he raised become the top ranger in charge of the gorillas, and one of the most respected men in the area.
Silvestre was one of the first rangers to patrol Virunga National Park after Congo gained its independence from Belgium in 1960. “There used to be many tourists before things got bad in 1994,” he sighs. “Now rebels are inside the park. At any time while patrolling, we can meet them and lose our friends.”
The elder Mburanumwe says he’s fought more than 15 gun battles with poachers and, as a team leader, he’s proud that he’s never lost a man.
“I do the job for the good of the country,” he says, as men walk by saluting him. “I also want the future generation to know about the beauty we have in the park. The animals are like our children, we love them so much. Until I die, I will be loving this job.”
The job, however, is tough on the family. Innocent Mburanumwe is usually home only four days a month. Since the rebel push last fall, he moved his wife and six children from the village nearest park headquarters to Goma, a three-hour drive away.
“It’s very difficult, but ranger families know that work comes first,” says Mburanumwe.
That’s a bit harder for his wife, Aline Burasa, to swallow.
“When the area is insecure, we worry for him very much,” she says as her toddler daughters play with friends on the jagged volcanic rock that forms the ground outside their humble home. “When he’s away, we think of him all the time.”
Still, she’s stoic: “He can call us from the field with his cellphone and tell us everything is OK.”
And while the children, too, miss him and living near their beloved gorillas, their dad’s work inspires them. “I’m very proud of my dad and I, too, will be a park ranger,” says eldest son Toussaint, 11, during a break from school.
“Me, too,” says his younger brother Juslain, chiming in. “It’s a great job.”
If you meet a gorilla in the mist
Some don’ts from Virunga National Park ranger Innocent Mburanumwe
Don’t eat or drink in front of gorillas.
Don’t point at them with your finger.
Don’t use a camera flash.
Don’t run if a silverback charges. Instead, scooch down and follow your guide’s lead.
Don’t go to the bathroom facing a gorilla; always turn away.
Don’t look a gorilla in the eye.