News has emerged that the director of Virunga National Park, Emmanuel De Merode has been shot and is currently in a critical but stable condition in hospital. It is reported (BBC news and Yahoo News) that his vehicle was ambushed during a drive from Goma back to the ICCN (the Congolese Wildlife Service) headquarters in Rumangabo.
It is unclear who shot Mr De Merode or why, although it is not the first case of ICCN rangers taking fire in the line of service, as several hundred rangers have died in the line of duty protecting the park and the mountain gorillas who inhabit it. Previous cases have been linked to rebel groups such as the FDLR (a rebel group formed by genocidaires in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide) and the FARDC (the Congolese Army), who have been keen to ensure continued access to forest resources to ensure continued income from the illegal charcoal. In 2007, four gorillas were killed, in what was thought to have been a warning to park rangers to stop them trying to reduce deforestation and the charcoal trade in the park.
Eastern DRC remains an insecure environment, as evidenced by the recent M23 rebellion in North Kivu, and unfortunately, as is the case with many rare and endangered species around the world, the mountain gorillas and those who protect them often get caught up in the violence. That said, during the recent rebellion rangers were allowed into the gorilla habitat to monitor the health and numbers of gorillas in the Virunga National Park, which suggested a far more collaborative approach towards conservation staff and the protection of the gorillas, so it is unclear why that stance would have changed.
The ongoing insecurity and this latest incident will do further damage to the gorilla tourist industry in the DRC which was developing well before the M23 rebellion broke out, helped in significant part by Mr De Merode’s efforts. That rebellion and this latest attack will only serve to discourage tourists from visiting the gorillas in the DRC, and also serves to entrench the view of the country as unsafe, harming other tourism schemes such as the one in nearby Kahusi-Biega National Park, in South Kivu, to see the eastern lowland gorillas. With constant competing interests for resources within protected areas, from charcoal to coltan, to oil, conservation efforts need to generate income in order to justify protected areas and prevent the exploitation of the parks, so events such as these unfortunately do not help that cause.
Hopefully Mr De Merode will recover from his injuries and be able to shed further light on the incident, so it will interesting to monitor news reports on the situation and see what story emerges over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime this seems to be yet another tragic case of those who dedicate their lives to protecting the gorillas getting caught in the violence of the DRC. Richard Milburn, Director of the Congo Research Group, The Marjan Centre