Since 1996, one hundred and forty park rangers have been killed by rebel militia, for trying to protect Virunga National Park and the species within it.
According to the charity, the Gorilla Organization, the park has suffered more ranger deaths than any other protected area in the world and in recent weeks the violence has escalated due to what’s believed to be an influx of rebel soldiers to the area.
Virunga National Park is situated in the heart of the Albertine Rift, it lies in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the border with Uganda and Rwanda.
The ongoing brutal war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been at the centre of what could be termed as Africa’s world war.
So far an estimated three million lives have been claimed, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition; and Eastern DR Congo is still plagued by army and militia violence despite the end of the country’s five-year war in 2003.
During the last week, rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) infiltrated the park and attacked an army patrol in the park killing eight people instantly and another man who died in hospital as result of his injuries.
Virunga National Park, is a world heritage site, and the horrible irony is that this beautiful backdrop has become a bloodstained staging ground for clashes with Hutu rebels from neighbouring Rwanda; government forces and other militant groups.
Park director Emmanuel de Merode said: “The rebels fired rocket launchers and a shell hit the vehicle.” The car was travelling along the road between Mabenga and Rwindi through the middle of the Virunga National Park. It was deploying the men on board to help keep the road safe for local people after reports that rebel soldiers had been seen in the area.
Park staff say the attacks have been the worst in more than a year.
Virunga National Park has the highest biological diversity of any national park in Africa and is home to 22 species of primates, including three great ape species – mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) and eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthi). Conservationists say there are only around 700 mountain gorillas left in this area – a reason why these rangers put their lives on the line daily to protect these critically endangered populations.
In December I blogged about the news that the DRC government granted a licence for two UK companies to explore and drill for oil in the park, an activity that would impact negatively on the biodiversity if it goes ahead. The companies have said that their presence could bolster security in the park, but conservation organisations and the UN have condemned the plan to drill in the park.
Judging by the violent appetite of the militia, I sincerely doubt this would be a deterrent.
The brutal attacks which took place over the last week are thought to be in retaliation for the destruction of two FDLR camps in the park by wildlife rangers last month, according to the Congolese Wildlife Authority (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, ICCN).
Security in the park has now been stepped up and Mr Merode says he aims to ensure that other members of staff are protected from further attacks.
He said: “These deaths have left us all deeply saddened. Virunga National Park has suffered more service deaths amongst its rangers than any protected area on earth. Despite this sobering fact, Virunga’s dedicated rangers still get up every morning ready to risk everything to protect the mountain gorillas and other beautiful flora and fauna of the park. And, during the long civil war, many rangers did so for little or no pay.
“Although one might think a ranger’s biggest fear is death, what most rangers fear most is that their widows and orphaned children will be abandoned and left destitute in a society that cannot care for them.”
The deceased were buried at Mai ya Moto, the park’s burial site where the rangers are honoured.
If you would like to make a contribution to the Virunga Widow’s Fund which provides the families left behind with basic health care, primary education for the children and a basic pension, please visit the website.