Virunga National Park

04.28.14

Can Gorillas Save the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

The Congo’s most promising prospect for peace is stuck inside a war zone. Can a Belgian prince and endangered gorillas turn Africa’s oldest national park into a tourist attraction?

In the middle of an obscenely green jungle canopy, we’re searching for the hulking black shapes of mountain gorillas. The path for our group of six is being carved through tangles of vines and vegetation one machete hack at a time. Our ranger, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, is scanning for visual clues that will reveal the gorillas’ current location. He tracks the family of endangered gorillas using GPS coordinates registered by the last ranger to see them, and physical signs of their recent movement in the surrounding nature.

GALLERY: The Battle for the World's Last Mountain Gorillas (PHOTOS)

140425-virunga-park3
Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

Three hours after we started the grueling hike from a small gorilla-monitoring post, we’re finally approaching our goal, barely visible at first in the dense vegetation. A silverback is munching contently and endlessly on foliage. A mom with a baby clinging to her back does a loopy run. A teen swings from the branches and scratches its back against the jungle floor. “Ahhhmm-hmmmm,” our ranger periodically grunts, signaling our friendly intentions. The silverback pushes past the teen, rolling him down a slanting hill. They’re serene, lively, and, of course, remarkably humanlike.

They don’t seem to mind us, allowing our group to trail behind them as they lumber around. By the time we hack our way out of the jungle and down the mountainside, the late-afternoon sun is high above the park’s constantly steaming volcanic peaks.

It’s a stunningly intimate encounter with one of the world’s most endangered species. The Humba group that we saw is one of six gorilla families you can visit in Virunga National Park, which is home to a quarter of the estimated 800 mountain gorillas left in the world. It’s an unstable home, to say the least. 

Over the past two decades, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has sealed its reputation as one of the most unstable and mismanaged countries in the world. Turmoil has spread within the country, but also over its borders: years of ineffective and corrupt government leadership has bred countless insurgencies, while foreign powers, including rebel groups from Uganda and Rwanda, are in a constant battle to assert their political influence and take advantage of the land’s minerals and resources that come with it. These factors have helped place the Congo, a country with potential to be hugely rich, at the bottom of the human development index year after year. 

140425-strochlic-virunga2-embed
Jerome Delay/AP

Virunga National Park, where much of the conflict is being bred and sustained, is also one of the greatest hopes for rebuilding the country’s economy. Occupying the eastern province of North Kivu—a corner of the world known more for two decades of civil war and bloodshed than its spectacular wildlife—the park is constantly under threat. Its animals are poached, rangers are targeted, forests are chopped down, and buildings and vehicles looted or occupied by rebel militias that make the park their home.

“In this sector we don’t have any problem,” our ranger, Yaya Mburanumwe, says, gesturing to the trail we’ve just descended. “But in the sector over”—he points right and indicates a mere seven miles away—“there, there are armed people operating.”

The park administration has also been rife with corruption. In 2007, then-director Honore Mashagiro was actively trying to kill off the park’s entire gorilla population. According to the park administration, his motive was to clear Virunga of the endangered species to allow for deforestation and charcoal harvesting, a $35 million-a-year industry in Congo.

But in 2008, Prince Emmanuel de Merode, a member of Belgian royalty, was appointed to take over what he calls “the Holy Grail” of parks. Under his leadership, Virunga and its gorillas have emerged as the volatile area’s most promising moneymakers and the foundation for developing the rest of the country’s tourism sector, which in turn, the hope goes, would foster long-awaited peace.

Natural resources have never been lacking in Congo, and nowhere is this more apparent than at Virunga. Not only is it Africa’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it contains more types of animals than any other protected area in Africa. Chimps, forest elephants, buffalo, hippos, antelopes, and forest giraffe are among the 1,000 animal species roaming the 2 million-acre park boundaries. It also has one of the tallest mountain ranges on the continent and the largest lava lake on Earth.

“[The gorillas] are my life, so if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas.”

The park administration has embarked on a slew of tourist-luring projects. There are glass-bottomed boats for viewing hippos in the works; plans to end the year with 60 accommodations in five locations, including on an active volcano’s edge; and the world’s only mountain gorilla orphan sanctuary. The park’s lodge, with individual bungalows that wouldn’t look out of place in Thailand, has positively glowing online reviews from intrepid travelers who have stayed overnight. But even with a brochure-ready roster like this, Virunga officials say they are hoping to attract only 1,000 visitors this year.

The war has been a constant impediment to their grand tourism plans.

The park shut down in July 2012 after one of the area’s rebel groups, M23, launched a remarkably successful insurgency. It reopened this past February with a handsome and tourist-optimized website showcasing the high-end accommodations, gorilla treks, and coming-soon hikes to the lava crater of the volatile Nyiragongo volcano—one of the park’s two active peaks.

“It’s one of those things you can’t see anywhere in the world except here,” Merode says of the volcano’s dramatic nighttime eruptions. Then he pauses. “[But] you can’t even see it here because it’s not open, it’s not safe.” On the day it was set to reopen in January, a ranger was killed in an attack near the peak.

Virunga goes out of its way to secure visitor safety, forbidding them from risky areas, but the instability keeps tourists flocking to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, where they pay big bucks for mountain gorilla permits—$550 in Uganda and $750 in Rwanda. The Congo, meanwhile, charges $465. If they can figure out how to to attract some of their neighbors’ tourists, the potential profit is huge. In Uganda, the World Wildlife Fund estimates each gorilla rakes in $1 million in revenue each year.

On the day Merode spoke to The Daily Beast, he had just launched the Virunga Alliance, a diverse group including park leaders, government officials, and investors who plan to turn the park into the Congo’s shining hope for peace and prosperity. The Congo, especially the volatile eastern region, relies so heavily on humanitarian organizations that the government often neglects its duties. Critics charge that the temporary presence of foreign aid adds to long-term instability.

Virunga, meanwhile, offers a unique hope through its permanence and the fact that it’s staffed by mostly Congolese workers. Over the next few years, the Alliance will seek $200 million in investment to build tourism, agriculture, fisheries, and energy industries in Virunga that will lead to economic stability in a country often passed over by developers.

But in its nascent stages, the Virunga Alliance plan is a Congolese catch-22: How do you attract investors and tourists—and the cash influx they promise—without stability? And how do you create stability to foster development without any economic prospects?

The Virunga Alliance hopes its surge of funds will build a quick-drying foundation. “That’s why people fight, they have no alternative,” Merode says, noting that 30 percent of the revenue earned is currently invested back into local communities. “What we’re betting on is if we can create mass employment then we have a decent chance of cracking [the cycle] next time—because if we go by the statistics of the past, we’re facing a major war in 2018.”

Donning a khaki-and-forest green uniform, a rolled beret and the orange-and-black Virunga badge pinned to his shoulder, Merode is soft-spoken and eloquent. Despite an uncomfortable historical relationship—he’s a prince from the country that formerly colonized the the Congo—the 43-year-old is widely respected locally for the conservation work and dedication he has shown to Virunga and the surrounding communities.

Under his leadership, Virunga has seen hints of the success tourism could bring. The number of visitors exploded from 550 in 2009 to 3,300 in 2011, with $1 million in revenue coming in during the latter. But 2012 put a halt to the meteoric rise. That year, the park expected $2 million in tourism, but brought in nothing due to the M23 rebels’ successful takeover. This year, after reopening in February, Virunga will be glad to get 1,000 visitors.

140425-strochlic-virunga3-embed
Jerome Delay/AP

One obvious impediment is the difficulty of getting into the country. The Alliance is undertaking plans to rebuild the border crossing between Congo and Rwanda, currently a dusty and disorganized post that only serves to highlight the infrastructure differences between the countries—Rwanda’s smooth, paved roads crumble into rocky potholes immediately upon entry into the Congo. They are also simplifying the visa process, rolling out an online application in early May to get a $100 visa to visit Virunga.

The country’s relationship with neighboring Rwanda is complicated. Rwanda, which brings in nearly $300 million annually in tourism, is an example of what Congo could become. But it also plays an integral role in Virunga’s long-term vulnerabilities. One of the rebel groups active in the park is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), one of the last vestiges of the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. The FDLR has been responsible for the deaths of 16 of the 20 Virunga rangers killed in the past three years.

“We did mourn,” ranger Yaya Mburanumwe says of the recent deaths. “But we cannot stop working because this is our job.”

The park’s 400 rangers are trained for war by Belgian ex-commandos, and their deep devotion to their jobs despite the risks is admirable, as seen in Virunga, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. “You must justify why you are on this earth. Gorillas justify why I am here,” says Andre Bahuma, self-proclaimed mother to the gorilla orphans at Virunga’s sanctuary. “They are my life, so if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas.”

The danger for Virunga’s eco-guards is constant. Since 1996, the outbreak of Congo’s first war, about 130 rangers have been killed in the line of duty, and Virunga has been taken over by militia groups twice in the last six years.

“We’ve lost a lot of our staff, so we’ve failed in many ways on that front,” Merode says.

In mid-April, a week after that honest assertion, Merode was shot four times in what is thought to be an assassination attempt on his way from Goma to the park headquarters. He survived and was taken to the local hospital in serious but stable condition before being airlifted to Nairobi.

This blow to the park highlights that, as lofty and well-intentioned as officials’ aspirations are for Virunga, there are countless factions working actively against it.

In 2006, the Congolese government granted permission to a British oil company called SOCO to explore for oil in an area, half of which is on land protected by the national park. Not only is this move a threat to conservation efforts in the country, but the documentary also reveals nefarious dealings committed by some of SOCO’s contractors and supporters, as well as their discord with park leadership.

During one meeting, a local SOCO supporter calls Merode “the one hindering the process and he’s the only one.” Later, SOCO’s operations manager complains that Merode blocks their plans. 

It’s this David-and-Goliath dynamic that has sparked a widespread theory that Merode’s attack was a hit job hired out by SOCO. In his first statement released after the shooting, Merode warned against these allegations. “For my part I have no indication as to who may have engineered this attack and would respectfully ask that others refrain from speculation prior to the findings of the enquiry,” he said.

But the condemnation of SOCO has grown louder and more official as of late. At an early April press conference, the governor of North Kivu province, Julien Paluku, also came out with his strongest words against the oil plans yet. “Petrol will disappear but the national park will last forever,” he said. “I’ve showed you studies that made me choose the national park, I’m still waiting for studies that make my choice petrol.”

But it appears the oil company won’t be leaving Congo on its own will. And neither will Merode, who indicates he’s looking forward to returning to his post “with renewed vigour” after recovering in Nairobi.

Virunga’s future will rest on aligning the stars of government support and outside investment—with, of course, a watchful eye trained on the ever-present, low-simmering conflict that could escalate at any time. A few years ago, Merode prophetically told National Geographic the secret to working in one of the world’s most continuously volatile countries: “In practice, living in Congo is a question of understanding where the threats come from,” he said. “Seeing it coming before it hits you.”

But Virunga’s leaders hope they can give up this duck-and-cover tactic sometime soon. Instead, they are putting their faith in the gorillas to bring in more tourists, which will create more jobs, and eventually neuter the threats long before they gain enough momentum to make an impact. And if all goes according to plan, these efforts may just cement an end date to one of the world’s longest ongoing wars.

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.