Congo

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

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to a quarter of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. But poachers, rebel groups, and oil interests are threatening their existence.

Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

The road to Virunga National Park offers stunning views of a lush landscape and smoking volcano, but the more desolate stretches present a danger. The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Virunga resides, is home to countless rebel groups, poachers, and illegal charcoal harvesters. For decades, the park has proved a breeding ground for violence that threatens the wildlife and its caretakers. But a bold new strategy for building peace and economic stability in the country is centered in Virunga, and Emmanuel de Merode, the park's warden, is fighting to make it stick.

Dominique Derda/France 2/Corbis

De Merode, a Belgian prince, took over as director of the Virunga National Park in August 2008—after his predecessor was charged with attempting to kill off the park's endangered gorillas to make way for illegal charcoal harvesting. In mid-April, Merode was attacked by gunmen in an ambush on his way to the park. He suffered two gunshot wounds, but survived and returned to the park shortly after to continue his work.

Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

A sweeping landscape dotted with villages greets visitors exiting the park after an arduous trek to visit the gorillas.

Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

A baby of the Humba mountain gorilla family chomps on leaves and twigs, balancing unsteadily on its feet. Virunga is home to around a quarter of the world's remaining 880 mountain gorillas, but volatility in the park means they're regularly in danger.

Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

Virunga ranger Yaya Mburanumwe looks on as a gorilla lumbers by. Visitors and rangers don face masks when in close proximity to the animals to ensure they don't spread human diseases. Working at Virunga is an incredibly dangerous job—at least 140 rangers have been killed in the past 20 years. 

Jerome Delay/AP

Rebels loyal to notorious warlord Laurent Nkunda traveled through Virunga in 2008. The violent takeover by Nkunda's CNDP guerrillas forced park rangers into displaced persons camps along with tens of thousands of Congolese citizens, until Merode initiated unprecedented negotiations and rebels agreed to let rangers return to Virunga.

Phil Moore/AFP/Getty

Four years later, Virunga was a battlefield once again, as M23 rebels claimed the territory as their own. Well-equipped fighters strolled the roads through the jungle in Virunga. Upon seizing the park, the M23 supplemented funds by hosting gorilla treks for the scant tourists.

Michele Sibiloni/AFP/Getty

Merode looks on as a ranger and gorilla play at the gorilla orphan sanctuary in Virunga's headquarters. The sanctuary's residents are the only mountain gorillas in captivity in the world.

Phil Moore/AFP/Getty

The Congolese army's hasty retreat during the takeover by M23 rebels made capturing the provincial capital of Goma an easy feat for the guerilla troops. Here, the military's tanks pull out of Rugari, just a few miles from the headquarters of the Virunga National Park.

Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

A teenage gorilla in the Humba family playfully rubs his back on the jungle floor.

Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

The Humba family's namesake—the dominant silverback male—shows off his striking coloring.

Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

A baby gorilla clings to its mother's back, peeking out from behind leaves.

Nina Strochlic/The Daily Beast

Village women strap loads to their heads and backs in preparation for the upward hike through Virunga's mountains. Thirty percent of the park's revenue goes to benefit surrounding communities, and new construction projects will soon provide electricity and jobs in the region. The hope is that a more stable economy and basic infrastructure can prevent the next wave of fighting.