Learn more about Africa’s oldest national park and its brave rangers, who risk their lives for the preservation of one of world’s most magical eco-systems.
Virunga National Park is situated in the turbulent northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which suffers from decades of turmoil and violence. Aside from the constant exploitation of the ecosystem by poachers, (Western) oil companies and a corrupted government, rebel groups alternately try to take control of the fragile region. Despite the continuous threat of violence and anarchy, complemented by counteractivity of corrupted government officials, Virunga has always been a relatively stable factor on Congo’s borders with Uganda and Rwanda.
The dangerous mission of brave park rangers – of which many have perished – is not in vain, as the UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to one of the last groups of mountain gorilla’s, which are increasingly threatened with extinction. Furthermore, the park is often named as one of the last pieces of pristine nature and magnificent wilderness on our planet. In addition to the inexhaustible efforts of rangers to protect the wildlife and ecosystems of the park, Virunga’s presence fulfils a major role for its surrounding communities. As a stable factor, the park functions as the eye of a storm for many. Additionally, the presence of the park creates economic development and financial opportunities for local communities. Especially in relatively stable times, when slight forms of tourism are possible, the park significantly contributes to the prosperity of local populations. On behalf of the Belgian director, Emmanuel de Merode (who is curr
ently trying to raise $1 mln for the park and its rangers by running the London Marathon), Emma Norton spoke with The Bright Continent about recent developments, stability in the region, and the future of Virunga.
“Virunga National Park is one of the most biodiverse protected areas on earth,” Emma explains. The park’s natural wealth has put it at the centre of war and conflict in the region, and safeguarding the park is an ongoing challenge for the rangers tasked with its protection.” She continues by underlining how the environmental situation and sustainability of the park have improved over the last years, due to boundless efforts of the park’s rangers. “Notably, Virunga’s wildlife populations are showing signs of growth after years of decline. In particular, elephant, hippo and mountain gorilla’s populations are now thriving. This is down to the tireless work of Virunga’s rangers.”
In line with the environmental progress of Virunga, we extensively spoke about the contributions of the park’s alliance – a sustainable development initiative – to the prosperity of the region. “The focus is on developing the park’s vast natural resources in a sustainable way, for the benefit of local communities who live within a day’s walk of the park’s borders. Provision of electricity through hydropower is helping to bring new opportunities to local people – offering not just affordable, reliable energy for homes, schools and businesses but also an alternative to charcoal, which is illegally produced within the park through the burning of trees.” Further, eco-tourism is offering new employment opportunities and helps to raise the profile of Congo as a viable travel destination. “The hope is that the Virunga Alliance will kick start a real green economy, which will benefit the community and help bring peace and stability to the region for the first time in decades,” Emma explains.
When we asked Emma about her hopes and fears for Virunga National Park, she started by once again emphasizing that, without the support of the regional Congolese population, the protection of the park cannot be ensured. Thereafter a passionate sense of hope was noticeable, when she explained that The Virunga Alliance offers a real source of hope. “It is an innovative project which, if successful, could help build a brighter future for the people and wildlife of eastern Congo.”
Altogether, Virunga can be seen as a beacon of light in a violent darkness, where brave men and women determinedly strive for the survival of one of earth’s most magical eco-systems. Feel like learning more about Virunga, the mountain gorilla’s and the significantly complex region? Several years ago, a compelling, award-winning documentary was made about Virunga, which can be found on Netflix. Find the trailer here: