The 12 Fallen Soldiers (Rangers) of Virunga National Park Among 16 People Ambushed in D R Congo
House robberies are down, traffic violations are down, pollution is down, and in many areas nature is reclaiming its own. At a guess, probably around the world. But in some of the most remote parts, crime and violence remain unchecked against the selfless few working to preserve nature, in this case keeping the finest flicker of tourism alive in a country that’s been bleeding for decades. This is as much a tourism as it is a conservation story – because perception is reality in the minds of the vast majority. And it has nothing to do with coronavirus, but we need to be aware, and pray that good triumphs sooner rather than later.
“Twelve 12 Fallen Soldiers (rangers) and four civilians were killed yesterday in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest national park and home to the mountain gorilla.
A statement released early Friday afternoon by the Congo Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) confirmed that an attack had taken place, with a ‘substantial loss of life’.
Late last night, ICCN director Cosma Wilungula said “around 60 fighters from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) ambushed a convoy of civilians that was being protected by 15 rangers”.
The FDLR, which operates in the volatile eastern DRC, has waged a periodic war with the Congolese government and rival militias since it was founded in 2000 by Hutu officials who fled Rwanda at the end of the genocide, which the United Nations estimates leftover 800,000 dead.
According to the Enough Project, a policy organization aimed at countering genocide and crimes against humanity, and which works with celebrities like George Clooney and Don Cheadle, several of Congo’s national parks – including Africa’s oldest, Virunga – are under siege.
“For years, the FDLR has helped sustain its activities by exploiting the remote area’s valuable natural resources, including minerals, ivory, fish, and marijuana. But one of the FDLR’s most successful revenue-generating businesses is the illicit charcoal trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s cherished Virunga National Park. Headquartered deep in the remote southwestern sector of Virunga, the illegal charcoal trade is lucrative. Some have estimated it has an annual value of up to $35 million”.
The FDLR has also been a source of friction between Rwanda and Uganda over the last year, with Rwanda accusing Uganda of supporting the FDLR and another DRC-based rebel group opposed to the Rwandan government. Uganda has consistently denied the allegations.
The ICCN statement indicates that it was an attack aimed at terrorizing the local population, connected to neither gorillas nor park officials.
“The guards were not the target and died while assisting the civilian vehicle that had been caught under fire from the attackers,” the Virunga National Park said in a statement.
The CEO of the Game Rangers Association of Africa (GRAA), Andrew Campbell, speaking from his home in the southern Cape, said it was worst incident he had heard of in Africa:
“The odds these rangers are up against is hard to fathom as they are tasked with attempting to bring stability to one of the most volatile regions on the continent and frequently engage with heavily armed militia groups numbering from 50 to 500”.
Campbell says these rangers struggle on every level. “I’d be surprised if they earn more than $150 per month, after their US$50 salary is topped up by NGOs. We extend our condolences to their ICCN ranger colleagues, friends and call on the international community to drive support to their families via the Virunga Fallen Rangers Fund”.
Campbell says the DRC has “lost 71 rangers from July 2012 to July 2019, according to records kept by the Thin Green Line Foundation and GRAA. This amounts to over 20% of all ranger deaths recorded in Africa during that period, not including those lost between July 2019 and now”.
Virunga National Park sits on the forest-covered volcanoes of central Africa and is home to over half the global population of mountain gorillas. It is Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve, covering 7,800 sq km (3,000 sq miles), and the world’s second-largest tropical forest and river basin, the Congo Basin.
According to the African Wildlife Foundation, the DRC is ‘one of the most important countries in Africa for biodiversity conservation, with a number of spectacular endemic species like the okapi, Grauer’s gorilla, bonobo, and Congo peacock’ along with over 400 other species of mammals, over 1,000 bird species, over 400 fish species, and over 10,000 species of plants’.
If there was no war in this part of the world, the DRC would be a magnet for tourism. It still can be.
It is important to note that this incident has nothing to do with gorilla-trekking in Rwanda at all, where security is far tighter, in a country with greater resources. There is no need to cancel bookings or stay away from the region.
PS if you wish to know more about the DRC and Sudan, and work being supported by people like George Clooney, Don Cheadle and Brad Pitt, visit the Enough Project.
NB: These images I shot in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, which covers Rwanda’s side of the eight Virunga volcanoes/mountains. They detail the landscape and in this case, Rwandan rangers, a very similar setting to the DRC around the corner.
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