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Why park rangers risk their lives to protect gorillas – and how it's working

Park rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo regularly lay their lives on the line to protect endangered gorillas – and it's working. The gorilla population has doubled in the last 30 years.

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    A Congolese conservationist looks after a baby female gorilla rescued from poachers trying to transport the primate through Goma, in eastern Congo, in 2009. Park rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are working to restore the gorilla population in Africa's oldest reserve.
    Congolese Wildlife Authority/Gorilla.cd/Reuters/File
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For rangers working at the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), what's the worst that can happen? 

"The greatest danger is death," park ranger Salange Kahambu told CNN.

The dedicated park rangers risk everything to protect endangered mountain gorillas in one of the world's most dangerous regions. But their efforts have paid off, Pete Kowalczyk reports for CNN. The happy news is that the gorilla population in the park has doubled in the last 30 years.

Such success comes at a high price from rangers, as 140 have been killed in the last two decades. Ranger Kahambu has worked at the reserve for only one year, but she already has been shot at by poachers. 

"During patrols we come into contact with armed poachers or groups of armed people staying in the forest," she told CNN. "Whenever there are incidents, there are always deaths." 

Almost half the world's nearly 900 mountain gorillas live in Virunga National Park, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

"The image of Virunga as an oasis is really strong," Esther Marijnen, a PhD candidate at the Free University of Brussels who is researching the park’s role in the region told the Monitor. "They’re the real heroes of Congo."

The conservation effort is up against massive odds. The DRC is second lowest on the UN Human Development Index for 2013, and the park is full of resources highly valued in the global marketplace, plus fishing and farming opportunities that poverty-stricken locals are understandably eager to utilize. Then there are the animals themselves: Poachers and militias outnumber park rangers 10 to one, and the rangers are not supposed to fight, CNN reported.

"What brings the people inside the forest to destroy is that they are very poor," Innocent Mburanumwe, a Virunga National Park warden told the Monitor. "They can’t like us, we are stopping them from doing illegal activity. When we interrupt them, they are very aggressive."

The park, which receives 95 percent of its funding from the European Union-related Virunga Foundation, takes a long-term appproach to working with the local community. The foundation is building schools, working on an electricity grid, and partnering with organizations to help create jobs. 

A musician from the area, Samba Mapangala, has tried to raise awareness and understanding among the locals by releasing a Swahili song about mountain gorillas. The song describes the gorilla's potential for ecotourism and also praises the bravery of rangers who risk their lives to protect the park as a whole and especially the gorillas. The song is sponsored, in part, by the World Wildlife Fund.

Emmanuel De Merode, a Belgian, has been shot twice since starting work as the park director in the mid-2000s, but only one gorilla has been killed since then. He says he has purged all but the best from the ranger staff and tried to give them as much financial stability as possible so they can continue their dangerous jobs. 

"Even if there's a period of intense armed conflict in the area, they will still go out and protect those gorillas," he told CNN.

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