Yet, of the 34 rangers who have lost their lives since I was appointed as Virunga’s warden in 2008, 27 were killed protecting civilians and not the park’s wildlife. A ranger in Virunga national park has a 44% chance of suffering a violent death during their career, the highest rate of service deaths for any national park in the world.
Over the years, a ranger’s responsibility – they are required to uphold the law across Congo’s vast wilderness areas – has stretched them beyond the traditional function of protecting wildlife. Instead, Virunga’s rangers have been placed at the frontline of a deeply complex conflict which has been described by Oxfam as the greatest human tragedy since the second world war, and which has led to the deaths of more than six million civilians.
The UN panel of experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo has characterised this war as a process fuelled by the trafficking of Congo’s vast biological and mineral resources, which funds the activities of more than 60 armed militias.
These include resources such as charcoal from the forests, fish from the lakes, and land and oil. These are all resources associated with Virunga national park and coveted by 12 of the most violent armed militias who reside in or around the park. Virunga’s rangers have had to develop an elaborate strategy aimed primarily at restoring the rule of law and protecting communities, and then building an alternative economy, known as the Virunga Alliance. This alliance relies on the principles of good governance and focuses on the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable as it restores and protects the fragile ecosystems.
A defining characteristic of Congo’s rangers has been their persistence in protecting civilians as well as the park’s remarkable wildlife.
In recent years, the mountain gorillas – Virunga’s most famous and most vulnerable resident – have doubled in numbers. More recently, the rangers’ efforts have led abductions to drop from around 18 a month to none in the past two months.
As the park’s ecosystem begins to rebuild itself in Virunga, so do its economies, with the prospect of 80,000 to 100,000 new jobs in conflict-affected communities.