A Belgian Prince, Gorillas, Guerrillas & the Future of the Congo
VIRUNGA, Congo — On April 15, Prince Emmanuel de Merode’s hulking Land Rover kicked up clouds of dust as he navigated it past the skeletal grey buildings of Goma, a provincial capital in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and on to the bumpy road that would take him to Virunga National Park, his home.
It was already nearing 4 p.m. and he imagined the rest of his day would be spent quietly at the park headquarters, a mountaintop cluster of aging colonial buildings. From there, the 44-year-old Belgian prince commanded hundreds of heavily armed rangers, oversaw a handful of villages, and made it his mission to protect the most diverse selection of wildlife on the continent. He was the only foreigner in such a powerful government position in the Congo.
De Merode took this 90-minute drive into town frequently, and though it wasn’t considered safe, he preferred to do it alone, so as to not endanger his park rangers. As the warden of Africa’s oldest and most volatile national park, de Merode had no illusions about the risks involved, and his work was growing more perilous all the time. He kept an AK-47 assault rifle next to him in the car.
However, at that moment, he was feeling particularly optimistic about Virunga's future—his long-term plans to transform the park from a breeding ground for corruption and violence to the Congo’s most viable hope for stability had just been officially unveiled.
Halfway to the park, the hustle of Goma and outlying villages faded behind him. Without traffic or houses, a vast green landscape splayed out: hills of wild grass rolled into distant mountain peaks obscured by a haze of volcanic smoke. The view seemed to stretch straight into the heart of Virunga, where elephants pulled leaves from trees in grassy savannas; chimpanzees raced through thick jungle; families of mountain gorillas chomped bamboo stalks; and a serene lake bustled with fishing villages.
Here, only the twisting grey concrete under his tires disturbed the desolate wild. Then he pulled the wheels of his car around a curve and was greeted by three gunmen, positioned on both sides of the road, waiting for him.
For two decades, Virunga was the epicenter of eastern Congo’s wars. Exploitation of the park’s resources had fueled nearly every rebellion, and though a relative peace dawned on the region in the past year, militias continued to ravage communities and wildlife in the mountains, forests, and savannas. De Merode saw many of Virunga’s defenders fall to the park’s foes, and attended 22 funerals for his rangers killed in the line of duty. In the past 20 years, 140 had died.
After six years at Virunga’s helm, de Merode’s list of enemies was lacking in neither length nor power. The war he was waging to protect a two-million-acre swath of wilderness pit him against poachers, guerrilla fighters, and unsavory entrepreneurs. But so far he’d had significant success, twice negotiating access to the park with occupying rebel groups; nursing back decimated populations of endangered gorillas, hippos, and elephants; bringing much-needed electricity to nearby communities; and—crucially—convincing the international community to care about a godforsaken park in a godforsaken corner of the world.
Recent weeks had been especially promising for de Merode. Ten days earlier, he watched international donors and government officials convene at the governor’s lakefront home for the most ambitious announcement in the park’s history. He had summoned a consortium of well-connected partners, including the European Union and Howard G. Buffett Foundation, to sign on to a new venture called the Virunga Alliance. This 12-year, multi-million dollar effort promised thousands of jobs, infrastructure construction, tourism revenue, and energy production—it was most likely the largest development commitment in the whole of the Congo.
If de Merode’s vision panned out, it would be more than a personal victory in a long career of wartime conservation work: it would lay the foundation for a peaceful Congo, a country long written off as being beyond repair.
But on April 15, all that, for him, almost came to an end.
The low crunch of packed dirt against rubber tire was overwhelmed by the ragged explosions of automatic gunfire. Four bullets pierced de Merode’s windshield and four more hit the truck’s body. The Land Rover’s engine died.
De Merode slipped from his seat and dove toward the roadside and into the forest. More shots echoed and two bullets hit him, one in the stomach and one in the chest. He ran deep into the foliage. Unsure whether his assailants were following him, he turned around and fired back with his AK-47. For 30 minutes he stayed hunkered down in the brush, but was bleeding badly and knew he didn’t have much time.
When de Merode heard the sound of an approaching car he emerged from hiding and tried to wave it down. The driver continued on. He returned to the forest until two farmers on motorcycles heading to market saw him. They threw off their bags of crops and strapped him to the back. He wished he could contact his wife, paleontologist Louise Leakey, in Kenya, so she wouldn’t hear about the attack from someone else.
The farmers carried de Merode until they spotted a military vehicle, and the soldiers stopped and loaded him in. But the car ran out of gas, and de Merode had to fish out $20 for it to refuel. A few minutes later, it broke down completely. After 15 minutes, another army car passed and he was transferred again. Finally, a park vehicle met them and took him to Goma’s best-equipped hospital. He called his wife.
In the operating room, as de Merode underwent emergency surgery, Congolese and United Nations soldiers sealed the facility so there would be no further attempt on his life. After four days he was airlifted to Nairobi and to his family.
To get to Virunga from abroad, you must first fly into neighboring Rwanda, drive three hours along winding mountain roads to the border of the Congo, cross your fingers as finicky agents peruse passports and visas, and then walk under the welcome signs and directly into the sprawling shantytown-turned-capital city of Goma.
From there, you navigate a sickening obstacle course of chunky rock spewed from volcanic explosions and gaping potholes brimming with muddy rainwater. White-tarp tents in displaced persons camps and the gated compounds of international aid organizations are reminders of a long-forgotten conflict that began with a disastrous spillover from the neighboring 1994 Rwandan genocide, and ended in two foreign-backed civil and regional wars, bringing a precariously built country to its knees and consuming 5 million lives. It continues to simmer today.
The entry to Virunga, just a thin metal bar with a sign that reads “STOP,” is manned by a crew of strikingly well-uniformed rangers. It’s marked with the park’s emblem: a silhouetted gorilla in homage to the quarter of the world’s endangered population that call the mountains home.
It is only six months after the shooting, on a warm late afternoon in September, and the director is in. This is indicated by the ranger, an AK-47 strapped to his back, lazing on the porch outside de Merode’s office, a small map-covered corner room in a peeling yellow Belgian-era administrative building. Thirty-six days after the ambush de Merode retook his mountaintop post at Virunga and he hasn’t slowed down since.
On this particular day, de Merode has spent the morning piloting his Cessna over the park’s surprisingly frosty mountain peaks. He plants himself on an outdoor couch, stirs Nesquik into a mug, and leans forward. “If you stay away for too long people think things will shut down,” he explains of his rush to return.
With unfaltering ambition, de Merode is set to transform the park into the region’s largest employer, a lucrative agricultural industry, an electricity generator, and health and education provider for the 4 million people who live on the outskirts. Virunga’s inexhaustible resources, he argues, far surpass the quick-fix solutions that have failed eastern Congo for years. And if he can stabilize this sliver of the country, it could prevent another devastating war.
De Merode claims nothing has changed since his shooting, but one obvious development is the armed ranger constantly at his side and the armored car he’s required to travel in. He’s accepted both only grudgingly.
The assassination attempt testifies to the authority de Merode holds in the Congo, where those deemed a threat to the various powers that be, or want to be, are often eliminated with little attention paid by the outside world. De Merode’s influence has spooked someone; the question remaining is: Who?
Virunga’s publicist issued a stern warning to visiting press: do not ask Emmanuel who shot him. But he’s an open book. Sensitive subjects are met with a short burst of laughter, and serious answers are sandwiched between a piercing gaze. He won’t speculate on who his assailants were, and when asked if he believes they will ever be found, a laugh emerges. “No,” he says, but he’s confident in the investigation.
“When you take on a service job of this kind you accept that that might happen,” he says, seemingly unconcerned. “It’s not a reason to stop just because it has happened. It’s happened to most of the rangers in Virunga—they’ve suffered gunshot injuries over the years and they haven’t stopped, so why should their commanding officer stop?”
Every day de Merode pulls on his tan-and-green uniform, a rolled beret fastened to his shoulder above the Virunga badge, and high-top black boots. He walks with his head low and shoulders stooped. He squints slightly, has a squared jaw, and speaks in British-accented English, the product of a boarding school education. His wiry brown hair is beginning to show streaks of grey around the temples, but that’s the only noticeable sign of the stresses that come with guarding the embattled park.
In Virunga, de Merode lives alone in a small canvas tent and eats his meals among some of the 480 rangers he commands in the staff mess tent, though the nearby visitor lodge serves up three-course feasts. The park’s staff calls him the most dedicated conservationist, the busiest man in the world—and a leader so in love with the park, it’s practically his mistress. Certainly his sparse, almost monastic existence would seem at odds with his royal title, and his forebearers are among Belgium’s most influential nobility.
De Merode’s daughters, ages eight and 10, have only visited Virunga once, last December. Even before the shooting, he worried that concern for their safety would affect his decision-making. Since the attack, there’s been no real question of their returning, but de Merode goes to see them every two to three months in Kenya, where they live with his wife, Louise.
He bridges the distance from his family in little ways, snapping photos of the slobbering faces of Virunga’s poacher-sniffing bloodhounds and sending them to the girls. He laughs when asked whether he and his wife have ever lived in the same place at the same time—he’s pretty sure they have, but says she may disagree.
When de Merode is outside the park and outside the country, the crowd he moves in is well-heeled and deep-pocketed—so far they’ve shelled out $30 million for the Virunga Alliance’s projects. He appears on stages with the likes of Prince William and David Beckham. In May, Tom’s Shoes launched a line of Virunga footwear. Leonardo DiCaprio recently signed on to be the executive producer of Virunga, an award-winning documentary about the park that will be released to theaters and Netflix on November 7.
But de Merode is much more comfortable off stage, in the park’s confines. During the chilly evenings he walks the baboon-haunted path from the ranger quarters to unwind at the main lodge, where there’s a roaring outdoor fire. At a long bar, the staff drink tall bottles of local Congolese beer named for the region’s most famous animals, Simba, meaning lion in Swahili, and Tembo, or elephant. Other than the occasional tipple, de Merode’s only apparent vices are a nail-biting habit and late-night cinephilia.
De Merode came to the Democratic Republic of the Congo when it was still Zaire. He was a 23-year-old wildlife researcher, born in Tunisia but raised in Kenya by parents working in conservation for the United Nations.
Most young boys don’t dream of obscure parks in the heart of Africa, but Virunga was his goal since he can remember. He imagined it as the holy grail of reserves, home to at least 1,000 different animals—more than half of Africa’s terrestrial species.
With the squawking of a few of Virunga’s 706 bird varieties overhead, de Merode is taking a break for lunch at the open-sided ranger mess tent just down the path from his office. It’s late, and his rangers have already eaten. De Merode sits at a long table and digs into a plate piled with rice, beans, and avocado. “A lot of children my age wanted to be rangers,” he recalls. “I was among them. It sort of just stuck; I never grew up.”
But Virunga is not Yellowstone, and Ranger Rick would be no match for the threats facing national parks here. In 1997, a few years after de Merode arrived in Zaire, the country went through a political upheaval, toppling its dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, after 32 years in power. De Merode was ordered to evacuate the national park he served at the time. A year-and-a-half stint away would be the last time he let political turmoil stop his work.
In 2001, he arrived at Virunga, in what was by then renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and seven years later, he was installed as director by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN). The park de Merode inherited was reeling from a gorilla massacre that its former director would be charged with, and was currently in the throes of a major rebel insurgency. A group called the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) had taken control of Virunga, and, immediately after his appointment, evicted all park rangers from the grounds.
De Merode is a trained conservationist, but his one-year conscription in the Belgian military was no match for the complex explosion of politics, corruption, and insurgency in the Congo. “I didn’t realize that managing a national park was about confronting armed groups and handling an armed conflict situation,” he says. “It wasn’t what I imagined. No, not at all.”
In an unprecedented maneuver, de Merode flew to the capital of Kinshasa to request the government’s permission to negotiate with the rebels. Then he returned to Virunga, crossed the war’s front line, and similarly managed to convince the CNDP to allow 120 of his staff to retake their positions.
In a memo wired to the Central Intelligence Agency during CNDP negotiations, then-USAID Congo country director Stephen Haykin extolled the benefits of the director’s passport: “Not being Congolese, De Merode does not have any affiliation with a particular Congolese political or ethnic structure, and so his motives can be more directly understood to be solely in protection of Virunga’s wildlife, particularly the highly endangered gorilla population.”
There is more than a little irony in that observation. Up until 1960, Belgian colonizers, first led by the notoriously brutal King Leopold, ransacked the Congo’s resources. In fact, it was another de Merode, a distant relative of Emmanuel’s, who served as one of four signatories representing the Belgian government when they drew up an agreement to formally annex the Congo in 1895. (A later version of it was signed into law a decade after.) During the Belgians’ bloody reign, they churned out millions of tons of rubber and ivory from the Congo, and were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 10 million natives. But in the case of this Belgian royal, this de Merode, all that seems to have been forgotten.
Once the agreement with the rebels had been reached and Virunga’s staff was back in the park, the warden purged the ranger ranks of the corrupt, infirm, and unnecessary. He risked a mutiny, but nonetheless handed over six senior park officers to the courts for trafficking park resources.
“It wasn’t easy for some of us to change,” says Innocent Mburanumwe, who sits in his office behind a laptop emblazoned with the Virunga emblem. The sector warden has spent 17 years in the park service and remembers a time when rangers were rarely given their salaries, uniforms, or rations, and many of his colleagues were involved in nefarious dealings. “When Emmanuel came he tried to educate us, telling us you have to stop killing, destroying, being corrupted.”
In 2012, a militia called M23 succeeded in taking control of a section of Virunga and the nearby capital of Goma, sending Congolese troops fleeing and forcing United Nations peacekeepers to hunker down on their base. This time, de Merode and his rangers did not negotiate. They simply dug in, refused to leave, and never did.
“It takes many years to rebuild a park like this, but it could be destroyed in three days,” he explains. “So you can never let your guard down.”
De Merode’s most ferocious battle these days is not with rebels or poachers, but with a British oil company called SOCO International. In a region that has survived 20 years of warfare, it’s this issue of oil, he says, that’s the largest threat ever to face the park.
In 2010, SOCO was given permission by the Congolese government to explore in and around Lake Edward, despite the fact that it is a UNESCO-protected zone. So far SOCO has been testing seismic activity before deciding to drill, and de Merode, convinced this is a matter of life and death for the park, is waging war.
If oil is discovered and extracted, he says, it would set a precedent for the desecration of all parks in the Congo, and perhaps world heritage sites globally. De Merode has enlisted a team of 32 international lawyers to work pro bono on the case.
Amidst the speculation on his assassination, one theory has surfaced widely: that local SOCO supporters (PDF) saw dollar signs in an oil boom and decided to remove the roadblock de Merode had proven to be.
The benefit of a national park is not obvious to nearby communities, who are banned from hunting its animals or farming its viable land. De Merode’s vision is holistic—jobs, electricity, tourism, and widespread infrastructure—but long-term plans are hard to sell. Although 30 percent of Virunga’s revenue already goes into developing villages outside the park, he still must prove the park’s worth.
On a hot morning, de Merode rolls up in a gorilla silhouette-branded truck to the worksite of the his most ambitious project yet: a 13-megawatt, $20 million hydroelectric plant that will provide power for thousands of people in the region, and will triple electricity in the province. Laborers dig and drill in a half-mile canal, due to be running next October. “Outside road construction this is probably the biggest development in the whole of Congo,” de Merode says proudly, surveying the site.
After two decades of war, even the most basic infrastructure is scarce. In the next year he plans to raise $150 million to build six hydroelectric plants, generating enough profit to fund the park for a century, and creating thousands of jobs. More than 300 people are currently employed on the site, including a 24-year-old carpenter making $5 a day ($2 above minimum wage), who works on the sidelines and praises de Merode. “He’s our father because he gave us jobs,” she says.
But three hours from the construction site, the war between oil and conservation is palpable. In a dim office of a crumbling colonial-era building in Vitshumbi, one of 11 large villages on the shores of Lake Edward, a local administrator named Delphine Katembo describes a town divided by allegiance to the park and to SOCO International, with hopes pinned on both to lift its residents from a 30-year fishing slump.
Since de Merode’s arrival, Katembo says there have been new protections for the lake, and their livelihoods are improving. But what’s more visible are the four clean water systems he says SOCO has built and the 250 villagers he says received surgery in an oil-funded medical assistance campaign last year.
“SOCO came in with bread from heaven for the population. It was like an old dinosaur coming back to life,” Katembo says. The park authorities, he says, “have been here for a very long time and never done a project for the people.”
A block away from the banks of the lake, where fishermen drag in their slimy catches, a small crowd gathers for a spirited debate over which they believe to be more harmful: the park or the oil company. With a vote, they agree the park is preferable. But confusion is rampant. In one breath, a 57-year-old woman who appoints herself spokesperson says she supports SOCO, and then doubles back, alleging it’s destroying the lake.
“Emmanuel de Merode? We never see him,” she says. “He passes here, but we don’t know what he does. He comes here and arrests the fishermen and poachers.” She won’t give her name because she fears retribution. “De Merode sends [park rangers] there to protect the land but rather than working, these people are making money in corruption. They’re part of the problem.”
Conservation, conflict and corruption come to blows in Virunga.
The conflict brutalizing Africa’s oldest and most diverse park seems to have made Virunga's future almost impossibly precarious, and, even as he continues navigating the treacherous social and political terrain, a melancholy sometimes settles in on the prince after long talks about its challenges.
He’s sitting outside his office in Virunga, a guard leisurely at his side, reminiscing again about the day of his shooting. Behind a chorus of shrill insects, the pops of gunfire can sometimes be heard in the distance. De Merode is hundreds of miles from his wife and daughters, encircled by hostile forces, a target on the back of his uniform. The Congo’s future seems to rest on this park and to weigh down his shoulders, but he ends on a note of firm resolve.
“I’m a public servant and I’m here to work for the Congolese government as long as they need me,” he says. “The day they no longer need me they’ll ask me to move on and I’ll go back to my family. That’s the only thing that I feel strongly about other than working here.”
The sun is still high, but when dark comes the road between headquarters and Goma, where the ambush occurred, still is not safe to drive. It's time to get going, de Merode tells his visitors. He puts down a mug of coffee and retreats to his desk. As night closes in, he works facing a framed photograph of his daughters, a wall of Virunga maps at his back.
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.