It was a routine patrol around noon. 7.30am on Sunday when six rangers working in Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo were ambushed by a local militia group. The attack is the latest in the part of eastern Congo where some of the world’s last mountain gorillas are home.
“It’s devastating,” park director Emmanuel De Merode told CBS News as he left the funeral of one of his six rangers. “These men’s families have lost breadwinners and have no safety net.”
And for those left behind, it is a brutal blow to morality.
The attack has been deadly since April last year, when 17 people – 12 of them rangers – were killed in the worst episode of violence in the park’s history. De Merode himself survived an assassination attempt after being shot several times in the chest and abdomen in 2014.
The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, the agency that administers protected areas in the country, says the latest attack occurred while rangers patrolled the central sector of the park near a newly built electric fence to prevent intrusion into the protected area. The Rangers have had extreme success with it – it has kept the militia out of the area – but that success has set a goal on their heads.
The armed warriors were not poachers, but militiamen fighting for control of natural resources and land. Park rangers are often attacked as part of the ongoing power war in the eastern part of the Congo. Dozens of armed groups operate in the region, many remnants of militias that fought in the civil wars over the past three decades that have resulted in millions of deaths as a result of conflict, famine and disease.
Militia groups hiding in the Virunga forest believe the parks have taken too much land for animals and conservation – land they need to survive. But it is not word of mouth survival – the Virunga forest is rich in natural resources such as charcoal, forests, fishing from the lake, animals and land. De Merode said this is a lucrative business for the militia.
“The park is very rich in resources and we lose about $ 170 million a year with these illegal activities,” he said. “That’s what draws the militia to the park. Our job is to protect the park, but it also means cutting them off from large sums and bringing them into frequent conflict with farmers whose job it is to protect the reserve and its flagship species, the mountain gorillas. ”
The attack has been blamed on Mai-Mai, an umbrella term referring to the many militias waging armed conflict in the region. They fund their activities with illegal looting of resources and are small but well armed.
Virunga Game Reserve is one of Africa’s oldest parks, home to stunning landscapes, incredible biodiversity and of course the majestic mountain gorilla. The park provides a rare opportunity to see these creatures up close.
Before the global coronavirus pandemic, the park was well on its way to becoming an economic asset. In an effort to reduce violence, the authorities have created around 12,000 jobs, and at least 11% of these new employees are former militiamen. The authorities hope that if they can provide fighters with a sustainable job, it can put an end to the conflict.
But the parks have been subjected to a series of devastating blows in the last few years: a recent Ebola outbreak, the coronavirus pandemic and now another brutal attack. The lack of tourism from this deadly cocktail of events has decimated the industry. De Merode said he does not know how long they can hold on financially.
“It could be weeks,” he said. “At best a few months.”