Eco-warriors in African style: Virunga National Park

    20 May 2021

    Western people hardly know the names of all African countries, and they know even less about the vicissitudes of their politics. War and war crimes in the former colonies are of little concern to the white population of the ‘First World’. There are, however, themes that seep through that veil from time to time. One of them is the beauty of African nature and the need to protect it.

    By the end of the 2000s, there were news circulating through environmental mailings that, despite the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), enthusiasts were defending the national park where gorillas live, arms in hand. Few years later the movie ‘Virunga’ (2014) by the British director Orlando von Einsiedel, dedicated to these selfless people, acquired some popularity. The film was released on the Netflix streaming service.

    In the heart of Africa there’s the country of Congo. After gaining independence in 1960, it has changed three names: it was previously known as Zaire, now as DRC.

    The volcanic mountains of Virunga are situated on the border of the DRC and Uganda. Created by the king of Belgium in 1925, Virunga is one of the most amazing national parks in Africa, covering the area of 7800 square kilometers. On the Ugandan side, the territory adjacent to the Rwenzori Mountains is called the Rwenzori Mountains National Park and is also protected. Both national parks are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, with Virunga also listed as an endangered object.

    Forested areas and savannahs in the park are inhabited by forest elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, okapis, warthogs, chimpanzees, and various antelopes. The population of hippos living on the shores of Lake Edward by 2006 had declined by more than 95%. The water areas of the park are protected within the framework of the Ramsar Convention, birds from Siberia migrate here for the winter period.

    The main attraction of the park is mountain gorillas. In 2007, several countries in the region, notably the DRC, signed an agreement to protect gorillas and their habitats.

    However, chaos and a constant lack of order in the east of the country did not allow to implement all the plans for the development of the park. Since the 1990s, fighting and uprisings have sporadically erupted in eastern DRC. This jeopardized the existence of Virunga Park during the period of political instability in the region in 1994-2004. A new round of military conflict in the park area at the end of 2008 led to the seizure of the park headquarters and the expulsion of its caretakers. Poaching and the Ituri conflict have severely damaged wildlife populations. Militants from various groups have entered the park and killed animals for valuable bones or simply for food. As a result, the number of individuals of many species has significantly decreased.

    Poaching and logging for coal production have threatened the future of gorillas.

    “Over the past 25 years, park workers have experienced continuous hardships, starting with the refugee crisis in the wake of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 (people from Rwanda fled from the massacre to the territory of Greater Congo, followed by Rwandan militants, – author’s note) which led to significant deforestation and the spread of armed insurgents throughout the park. By the end of 2008, it seemed as if Virunga was over, the website of the national park notes.

    However, since 2008, some changes for the better have begun.

    The film “Virunga” tells about the events of 2012. There was another outbreak of civil war in the country, rebel group named “M32” was attacking the government units and the UN peacekeeping mission. There were battles, civilians were suffering. In the meantime, in the middle of untouched nature, a parallel reality unfolds – the defense of Virunga National Park.

    The viewer is shown both the enchanting landscapes of the park and the causes of the war.

    They are the they have been since time immemorial – resources and money. Both the rebels and the government in 2012 were essentially sponsored by the transnational corporation “Soco International” (hereinafter “Soko”, headquartered in Britain), which was going to extract oil in the DRC. Resources are being actively explored, and the largest deposits are found… under Lake Eduard (aka Rutanzige) and the rest of Virunga Park.

    To start mining, businessmen drive away inhabitants and wild animals from their historic habitats, conduct destructive seismic tests, deforestation and deep underground drilling. The situation is clearly reminiscent of the movie “Avatar”. The difference is that in our world, instead of dangerous blue-skinned anthropoids living on trees, corporations kill fellow homo sapiens, who were freed from colonial rule only in the middle of the twentieth century.

    In Virunga, for a while, only one power remains – weapon in the hands of the rangers, the armed guards of the park. These are dozens of black men with machine guns and RPGs, led by a white descendant of the colonialists. His name is Emmanuel de Mérode, he is a Francophon from the Belgian royal family. The man makes motivating speeches in front of his “troops” and states in an interview that he’s the only one who protects Virunga Park in accordance with the law.

    The first impression is that again the ‘white master’ is in charge of the black subjects. However, this image is deceptive. De Merode, though a Belgian prince, is better known as an anthropologist and national park conservation activist in Africa. In August 2008 he became the first foreigner to head Virunga Park. The national park managed to attract donors, the rangers began to be trained by the former military special forces of the European armies.

    Black Rangers are real fanatics of their job and are ready to die for the cause of nature conservation. The profession is dangerous – 175 rangers have died in the park since 1925. In the film, only they and the civilians are shown as positive characters.

    The same cannot be said about the local elites, both the ‘legitimately elected government’ and the guerrillas opposing it. Both sides of the conflict are corrupt and want only to ‘shoot and make money’. After the collapse of state infrastructure, only the park rangers continue to take care of the civilians e.g. by treating the wounded.

    The film has several storylines: gorilla guardian Andre Baum, caretaker of the central sector of the park Rodrigue Mugaruca Katembo, park director Emmanuel de Merode and French journalist Melanie Goubi.

    Scene by scene, it becomes clear that feudalism has not gone anywhere from the region, and that corporations like Soko benefit directly from it. The ‘investigative’ storyline is about a French journalist who wants to uncover the ‘Soko conspiracy’. Von Einsiedel and Melanie shoot an undercover video of Soko officials offering a bribe to Rodrigue Katembo. The corporation, by the way, firmly denies all the accusations shown in the film. Meanwhile, a hidden camera is also filming the revelations from the corporation’s employee: ‘We are paying the rebels, adding fuel to the fire. After all, they will give us access to the oil’; ‘At the level of the Minister of Environmental Protection, we have already decided everything, there’s a mining permit.’ That is, world-class traders have paid the warring parties and prepare to hit the jackpot amid the mayhem of war.

    Then the movie shows Melanie’s interview with the rebel colonel: ‘Yes, I will get a percentage of the loot. Even 0.01% is a lot of money’, tells the guerilla commander. Add to this the revelations of Melanie’s interlocutors from Soko, who state in an openly racist way ‘these Congolese are savages, infantile, they cannot be re-educated, they only want blood’.

    The third line of the plot is the voice of the animals themselves and Virunga’s wildlife. Next to the bloody human chaos are breathtaking landscapes, mountains and forests untouched by humanity. All the animals that we are used to seeing in educational programs about Africa live there: gorillas, hippos and elephants. Rangers rescue mountain gorillas and try to restore their population. This species is under threat, there are fewer than a thousand of them left on the entire planet. Primates are cute and human-like, easily establishing an emotional bond with their guardians.

    Due to the war, a veterinarian cannot reach the gorilla detention center, and one of the animals dies. The rest survive and are gradually released by the rangers into the woods.

    So, with RPGs ready, the most militarized wildlife conservation in the world carries on.

    What’s happening now?
    The park had survived. ‘Most of our funding comes from the Buffett Foundation and the European Union’, de Merode said in 2017 on the National Geographic blog. Virunga Park is supported by the British royal family through the Royal Foundation, a charitable foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. Rangers also charge tourists, but such trips are extremely dangerous.

    As of 2017, according to de Merode, there are approximately 1,500-2,000 militants in and around the national park fighting for control of the region’s rich resources. They fish, kill animals, cut down trees, and also kill, rape and kidnap local residents and foreigners.

    The world premiere of “Virunga” took place at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 17, 2014, two days after the assassination attempt on de Merode. His car was ambushed, he received four bullet wounds in the stomach and legs from some ‘unknown persons’. The park director was returning from the prosecutor, to whom he passed on information about the threat of illegal oil production in the national park. De Merode survived and supported the film’s premiere.

    Soko officially completed its oil exploration in Virunga in April 2014. The accusations leveled against the corporation in the film were reinforced by local NGOs and civil society organizations working in Virunga National Park. A campaign has been launched to pressure Soko to end the search for oil in a protected World Heritage Site.

    On June 11, 2014, Soko and WWF issued a joint statement in which the oil company pledged ‘not to undertake or commission any exploration or other drilling in Virunga National Park, unless UNESCO and the DRC government will not agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status’. It was presented as a victory for WWF, which has long campaigned for Soko to leave the region. However, strong concerns about the credibility of this agreement were expressed by Virunga’s producers along with other NGOs such as Global Witness, Human Rights Watch, and Congolese civil society organizations. It is noteworthy that the producer and director or “Virunga” treat their work not as ‘pure art’, but as a means of fighting for wildlife.

    WWF leaders now admit that the battle for Virunga is hardly over. Soko never gave up their work permits, nor made an unconditional withdrawal. ‘They leave the door open’, said Zach Abraham, WWF’s director of global campaigns.

    On November 4, 2015, Soko announced that it no longer owns a stake in the exploration license for a national park in the DRC. On March 13, 2015, the BBC reported a statement from the DRC that the government could potentially redraw the boundaries of Virunga National Park to allow for oil exploration.

    A remarkable fact. In 2018, a well-known Ukrainian conservationist Oleksiy Vasilyuk was approached by ‘Paradise for Primates’, a non-governmental organization from Congo, which is engaged in the protection of gorillas who have lost their families. They asked volunteers from Eastern Europe… to create a website for them. Within a day, the programmers were found and the site was created.

    In 2018 documentary films festivals presented the second film worth paying attention to – ‘Makala’ by a Frenchman Emmanuel Gras, about another side of Congo life – the everyday life of a villager mining charcoal. However, that is a topic for the articles to follow.

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