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.

Photos by Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor
Members of the Humba gorilla family interact in Virunga National Park, in Bukima, Democratic Republic of Congo. There are an estimated 200 gorillas in Virunga National Park, 83 of which are habituated.

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.

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.

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.

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 touch.

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.

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