In eastern Congo, a gorilla reserve tries to rise above its troubled region

Virunga, Africa's oldest national park, is not immune to security threats. But changing practices have yielded progress.

Jerome Delay/AP/File
In this picture taken Aug. 2, 2012, Virunga National Park rangers follow Dodi the two-year-old blood hound during a search and rescue exercise in the park, in eastern Congo.

Strolling among the tombstones of Virunga National Park’s “gorilla graveyard,” Innocent Mburanumwe, one of the chief wardens, smiles as he talks about his favorite gorilla, whose bald head reminds him of an old man.

Here in Africa’s oldest national park, he has watched the iconic mountain gorilla population, the largest in the world, rebound to almost 1,000 after dipping to an all-time low of 250 in the 1980s. A few of those who have died or been killed are buried here in the graveyard.

“I like to stay with animals [more] than staying with humans. Humans, they have a lot of problems, but animals, they are very kind,” Mr. Mburanumwe says.

He has worked at Virunga for 18 years, many of them without salary, resisting the temptation to line his pockets with money from illegal activities such as animal trafficking and charcoal smuggling in the park. This devotion is unusual in a country where underpaid, untrained public servants often feel compelled to seize whatever opportunities for personal enrichment they can. ​

During Mburanumwe’s career here, this part of Eastern Congo has been caught in the middle of four major wars. And the park is hardly immune to security threats. Rwandan and Congolese soldiers are perpetually in a tense standoff on the park’s eastern flank. Armed groups in the park have found haven and a steady stream of revenue – illegal trafficking of natural resources generates an estimated $100 million a year. ​As recently as mid-June, clashes with a local armed group left one ranger and several Congolese Army (FARDC) soldiers dead. And outside the park, impoverished communities seethe at being told that they can’t farm within the park boundaries.  

Still, with its orphaned gorillas tussling over bottles of gruel provided by caretakers and tourists sipping coffee on the deck of the luxury lodge, Virunga National Park seems like an oasis amid the chaos and insecurity of eastern Congo. But it’s more accurate to call it an experiment – an experiment in what can be achieved if civil servants are paid properly and punished for corruption, and local communities are given a boost out of the cycle of poverty.

“It shows what is and isn’t possible, particularly what is possible,” says Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian park director who took over in 2008 and has overseen much of its current progress.

Mr. de Merode acknowledges the many challenges of his task, particularly what he says is the main issue plaguing the region: good governance. But “good governance costs a lot of money,” he notes. The Virunga Foundation, as the Congolese Wildlife Authority’s partner, provides 95 percent of the park’s annual budget of $5.5 million. It's one of tens of organizations with a hand in the park through the larger Virunga Alliance, and receives much of its funding from the European Union.

What de Merode and the foundation, which has a 25-year agreement to jointly manage the park with the wildlife authority, are learning is that Virunga National Park, as part of a complicated ecosystem here in eastern Congo, can’t completely shield itself from the failures of the state – including violence and disarray.

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

But she questions the success of the approach, which she argues is turning Virunga into “a state within a state.” "Is it really an oasis if there are so many armed groups in the park?” 

Bloat and corruption

When de Merode took over in 2004, the Congolese Wildlife Authority (known by its French acronym, ICCN) was bloated with inept, corrupt rangers and officials. Rangers hadn’t been paid in years and were allowing poachers and smugglers free rein for a cut of the profit. Working alongside them were Congolese soldiers, accused of complicity in everything from wildlife trafficking to gold smuggling.

To save Virunga, particularly its mountain gorillas – whose hands used to turn up in stores as exotic ashtrays – de Merode needed to overhaul the ranks of both the rangers and soldiers. De Merode purged the rangers’ ranks, pushing aging rangers into early retirement and booting out those with links to armed groups and smuggling rings. Six were sent to prison for poaching and trafficking.

He also limited hires to those between 18 and 24, assuming that would weed out former soldiers or militia fighters.

​Over the course of about a year, the number of rangers plummeted, from about 1,000 to 230. In 2010, he also cut the number of FARDC operating in the park from 4,000 to 200. Then he hiked salaries from the country average of $25 per month to an unmatched $200, with all but $35 of that coming from the foundation, and created a three-month reserve so they could still be paid on months the government failed to pay its portion.

Results are apparent: Since 2007, only one gorilla has been killed. The “extreme protection regime,” as he calls it, is working.

Armed clashes 

Despite the changes, the joint battalions can’t stop armed groups’ pillaging of natural resources, which is chipping away at their habitat – a slower path toward destruction.

Armed groups are key players across all of eastern Congo. They finance themselves with so-called 3T minerals (tungsten, tin, and tantalum, crucial components for electronics devices) and gold, plus charcoal and fish, pitting them against park authorities constantly. Mburanumwe says there are about two clashes a week between armed groups and the park's hybrid ranger-soldier patrols.

“It’s not because [the rangers] are protecting gorillas, it’s because they’re on the front line of what’s causing conflict,” de Merode says, referring to resources.​ “It’s enough to fund an army, it’s enough to fund a war.” ​

But the rangers' mandate doesn’t allow them to engage with armed groups, leaving them heavily dependent on the FARDC. The mid-June patrol of about 80 rangers, in which one ranger was killed, was up against more than 300 rebels, says Faustin, a ranger on that patrol who wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

They regained control of the area, but only after receiving reinforcements. “It’s normal, it’s part of the job,” he says. “It is risky work in the park.”

And under this much duress, the rangers bend. They’ve been accused of using excessive force when dealing with locals who try to farm and hunt illegally in the park. Others give in to armed groups’ demands for help in illegal activities, either out of fear of being killed or the allure of more money in their pocket.

Virunga is also up against the allure of oil riches. While, as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is not open to oil exploration, the international oil company SOCO was given an exploration license by the Congolese government in 2007. Disputes have stalled the process, but this spring the government said it would try to negotiate a compromise, likely the declassification of a section of the park, to allow SOCO to explore further.

A better path for locals

A key path to stopping the plundering of the park is by giving locals, who are just as likely as armed groups to engage in illegal pillaging, a better economic option.  From the outside looking in, it can be difficult for locals to come to terms with the park boundaries. The park's 3,000-sq. mi. footprint limits where they can farm and hunt, undermining their ability to feed their families. This affects the four million people who live within a day’s walk from the park, according to de Merode.

“There is no other park in Africa with that level of demographic pressure,” he says.

Authorities "are trying to conserve Virunga by thinking that with strong protection you can keep people out of the boundaries,” says Deo Kujirakwinja, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s landscape manager for eastern Congo.

But driven by economic desperation – the DRC is second to last on the UN's Human Development Index, and eastern Congo, after decades of war and neglect, lags behind much of the country – many locals sneak in for hunting and foraging. Some set up communities within the boundaries and then pay armed groups to shield them from authorities. They also join the illegal charcoal and fishing trades. The fist-sized black bricks of charcoal and dried fish are sold on street corners across Goma and all along the road connecting the city to the park.

“It’s a major part of the economy and it’s one of the primary driving forces both behind the armed groups and weakness of government institutions,” de Merode says.

“What brings the people inside the forest to destroy is that they are very poor,” says Mburanumwe, the warden. “They can’t like us, we are stopping them from doing illegal activity. When we interrupt them, they are very aggressive.”

Building schools

To try to address the problem, the Virunga Foundation has taken on tasks typically reserved for the state, like building schools. It also has an ambitious $22 million hydropower project, backed by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, that will make the park the second largest electricity producer in North Kivu Province by December. The plan includes the construction of a number of factories that would transform local resources on site – drying fish in large quantities, making soap from local palm oil crops – and the provision of cheap electricity to local small businesses. The foundation estimates it could create 1,200 local jobs within the next three years.

But communities are impatient. Virunga is well aware of that, but it’s staying the course. The idea is to bring the local population around by making the park a driver of growth for the whole region. Still, that takes time – and along the route to the park, the frustration is palpable.

“We are waiting without patience,” says one man in Rumangabo, a village just outside the southern sector headquarters that has a Virunga-built school. “The ICCN project has failed,” says another.

“They don’t value humans!” argues someone in Kibumba, a village separated from the park by a dirt road. Of the two dozen or so who piped up in the two villages, only one man, in Rumangabo, comes to Virunga’s defense. When he reminds everyone that the electricity will be coming soon, he is laughed at and shouted down. A neighbor shouts out: “We want to push this park further into the forest.”


How mountain gorillas helped three countries find common ground 

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo – During Idi Amin’s eight-year reign of terror in Uganda in the 1970s, elephants migrated to Virunga National Park  amid the country's conflict and disastrous land policies. In 1994, the 100-day Rwandan genocide also sent its wildlife scurrying.
Then came Congo’s waves of war beginning in the mid-1990s, which reversed the animals’ flight and pushed many of Congo’s animals across borders as well. 

Despite crossing national boundaries, they remained this whole time within the Virunga ecosystem, which stretches into three countries and encompasses seven parks, including the well-known Virunga National Park.

“We have this connected forest. The animals inside don’t recognize those boundaries,” says Deo Kujirakwinja, a landscape manager with the Wildlife Conservation Society in eastern Congo.

The countries of Africa’s Great Lakes region are deeply intertwined. Leaders have backed rebellions against each other, ethnic groups span borders, and rebel groups find safe havens among the hostile neighbors. After decades of war within the region, governments are highly suspicious of each other.

Amid this, conservation efforts have struggled to gain traction. Animal populations have declined and forests shrunk. And in the mid-2000s, conservationists realized that country-by-country efforts were falling short. But how would they get the three hostile neighbors to work together?

The answer lay in mountain gorillas.

The Virunga ecosystem is home to the largest gorilla population in the world. Gorilla tourism rakes in $292 million a year for Rwanda alone, with visitors paying hundreds of dollars for a few hours of face time with a family, and hundreds more in park fees while tracking them. Then there’s the transportation, food, and lodging that supply income to the surrounding communities. (Congo’s figures are much more erratic because of spikes in conflict.)

The region’s iconic species, with their lumbering, arm-heavy gait, childlike antics, and penetrating gaze were the perfect starting point as a way for the three countries to work together. What followed were a series of milestone agreements during the 2000s that eventually led to the Greater Virunga Transboundary Core Secretariat in 2008, the only diplomatic trilateral agreement that Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo have ever signed and upheld.

The agreement reflected a number of diplomatic maneuvers, from allowing rangers of different nationalities to informally collaborate to protect the forest, to sharing tourism revenue from gorilla families that cross borders.

“When you have three countries who were at war at certain times, you have to choose something that’s easy to agree on,” says Johannes Refisch, project manager for the Great Apes Survival Partnership(GRASP), explaining the decision to start with an agreement on the gorillas.
Mr. Refisch hopes that the growing trust within the secretariat will allow the three countries to tackle much tougher issues like charcoal smuggling, which is slowly chipping away at the gorillas’ habitat.

“The countries mistrusted each other. There was no platform to come together even in an informal way. Now the countries know each other,” he says.
All three countries have poor, rural populations dependent on charcoal for cooking – particularly Rwanda, which must import most of its charcoal from Congo. The need is so great that it is unwilling to crack down too hard on the illegal trade, Refisch says. But getting Rwanda's help at all might have been impossible before the secretariat existed.

And if the agreement really takes root, Kujirakwinja says, Rwanda and Uganda’s much-stronger rule of law might help impose more order in Congo.
But Virunga National Park’s management is skeptical that Rwanda and Uganda can help its uphill battle, and there's some concern that trying to use this agreement to tackle thornier issues could end up weakening the agreement overall.

“Most of the problems relate to us,” says Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian director of the park. “We have to solve our own problems before doing anything too big.”

These stories were reported with support from The International Women’s Media Foundation. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, mentioned in the first story, provides funds to the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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