Africa’s oldest national park on the front line

Africa’s oldest national park on the front line
rangers recover silverback

Park rangers recover body of shot silverback (credit: daweiding)

Established in 1925 the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is Africa’s oldest national park.  The killing of 8 people, including 3 wildlife rangers, yesterday also reminds us that the National Park is in a war zone. By being on the front line this UNESCO World Heritage Site  has been and continues to be damaged by the fighting.

This damage to the wildlife is best seen with the devastation caused to the hippo population of the park. In the 1970’s numbers of hippos around the shores of Lake Edward was put at 30,000 by 2006 that number had dropped to 629.  Congolese rebel soldiers were thought to be the cause of the crash as they slaughtered the animals for food and to sell the ivory from the teeth.

There are other important species in Virunga National Park at risk from the conflict including a population of mountain gorillas. It is thought that a third of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas live in the Virunga National Park. These highly endangered species are at threat from the civil unrest in the Congo on a number of fronts;

  • Attacks from the rebels obviously impact on the tourism that the mountain gorillas bring to the country and this in turn impacts on the finances that are available to protect the gorillas.
  •  The gorillas themselves are worth money to the rebel soldiers and baby gorillas are valuable in the pet trade. Unfortunately for every baby gorilla that is sold in the pet markets many adult gorillas are killed as they try to protect the baby.
  • Refuges are trying to escape the worst of the conflicts and are encroaching on the gorilla habitat. The refuges have to rely on gorilla habitat for food and fuel. This increase in people also brings about health risks for the mountain gorillas as they are very susceptible to the same diseases as humans – such as flu – but do not have the same ability to fight the infections.

[pullquote]The 3 rangers and 5 soldiers that were killed will be buried in the Virunga National Park’s own cemetery [/pullquote]The job of protecting the 3,000 square mile national park falls on the Congolese National Park Authorities and the parks dedicated force of 680 park rangers. The job is not easy though and over 130 rangers have been killed since the unrest started in 1994.  Many of the rebel soldiers are thought to come from across the border in neighboring Rwanda.

The Virunga National Park is going through a period of particular unrest as there has been an influx of rebel soldiers recently. There is now believed to be over 700 rebels camped in the park. The rebels have historically used the park as a safe haven during times of government offensives.  They are also increasing their activities against park rangers and soldiers because of government actions in destroying illegal charcoal burners in the park. This illegal industry in the DR Congo  was bringing in a significant amount of income for the rebel soldiers.

This latest attack which left 8 dead and 3 injured was carried out in the same area that a UN Peacekeeper patrol came under attack last year leaving one of the peacekeepers dead.  The patrol was going along a road in the centre of the park and checking on the route that is used by tourists and visitors to the park. The 3 rangers and 5 soldiers that were killed will be buried in the Virunga National Park’s own cemetery where the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for the park and wildlife are honoured.

Once again we see the brave actions of wildlife rangers who are prepared to risk everything to ensure that wildlife and nature is protected from those who have no thought for the future.