Emmanuel de Merode has one of Africa’s most challenging jobs. As director of the 7 800 square kilometre Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, he is responsible for the management of Africa’s oldest national park, a World Heritage Site located in one of the most volatile regions of the world.
Currently a ranger force of 550 men and women are tasked with protecting both local people and wildlife from several thousand armed militias. More than 160 rangers have died in the past ten years.
Stretching 400kms from north to south, Virunga lies within the Albertine Rift, a geographical region in equatorial Africa characterised by mountain ranges, several great lakes and stupendous biodiversity. In the north of the park, the snow-capped Rwenzori mountains reach a height of 5 100 metres. The central savanna region is home to hippos, elephants and lions. And the south is well-known for its mountain gorillas which live in the rainforests, on the slopes of several dormant volcanoes. There are also two active volcanoes, both of which have sizable lava lakes that sometimes erupt.
The geological volatility of the region mirrors the socio-political landscape. Virunga lies near the nexus of one of Africa’s most violent and lawless regions, where DRC meets Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. Since 1994, more than six million people have died as a consequence of conflict.
As shown in the 2014 documentary film Virunga, thousands of armed militias operate in and around the park, attempting to control access to resources like forestry and fishing. Oil companies, most notably Soco, have manoeuvred illegally to prospect and drill for oil in the protected area. Several million rural people survive by farming crops on some of the most fertile soil in Africa, or by fishing in the 2 300 square kilometre Lake Edward.
De Merode was born in Tunisia, raised in Kenya and trained in the United Kingdom as a biological anthropologist. He first arrived in DRC in 1993, and earned his Ph.D. by studying the illegal bush meat trade. He took on the Virunga job in August 2008, the only foreign national to be afforded the privilege – and challenge – of running one of the world’s finest parks.
He shies away from his European royal heritage and makes his home in a small tent alongside fellow rangers at the park headquarters of Rumangabo, about 40kms north of the city of Goma on the shores of Lake Kivu.
In April 2014 De Merode was ambushed by unknown assailants while driving back during the night from Goma to park headquarters. Shot four times in the legs and stomach, he survived, and today continues to spearhead the protection of Virunga and the development of jobs in the region.
Scott Ramsay: What’s the current state of conflict in and around Virunga National Park?
Emmanuel de Merode: There are continuing risks to the park’s security, certainly. However, it’s relatively localised and tied to three main armed groups. The ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) and NALU (National Army for Liberation of Uganda) operate together in the north. They are an extremist Islamic movement operating to undermine the government of Uganda.
Then the Mai-Mai, who are Congolese, operate in the centre of the park. In the south is the FDLR (Democratic Forces for Liberation of Rwanda), many of whom were responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
These groups are all sources of great concern for us and we have to take them very, very seriously. But there aren’t too many places left on the planet where there isn’t some level of insecurity, unfortunately, so it’s a question of how the risk is managed and handled. That’s something we’ve been working on for about ten years and we’ve progressed a lot.
How do you manage that risk, from a tourism perspective?
We have to be clear about the fact that eastern Congo is not a safe destination. Security has to be taken very seriously. Most governments would advise their citizens not to come to eastern Congo, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Equally, we would advise visitors not to come unless they’ve planned their security extremely well. And this is what we have done for visitors. We ensure that all visitors to the park are properly protected. If you manage security properly, Virunga is a safe destination and the records demonstrate that.
We’re able to provide close security to visitors through a combination of highly professional training and a lot of experience within the ranger force. We also have an intensive intelligence network intelligence which gives us a good ability to predict and identify problems before they arise.
We have a very strict policy of caution. We don’t take undue risks, which means that sometimes we have suspended tourism, and that’s always happened before any material threat has surfaced. We’re just not prepared to take a high level of risk as far as visitors are concerned.
And our track record speaks for itself. We’ve had close to 10,000 visitors in our care without a single security incident. There have been incidences with visitors outside the park who haven’t been in our care, so that’s why we strongly advise that we meet tourists at the Rwandan border and escort them on their trip to the park. We then escort them back to the border or airport again. That’s provided a very safe context for people to visit Virunga in.
All of our rangers who take care of visitors are trained by European special force instructors. Each ranger gets seven months of basic training, including five months at a dedicated training camp. It’s a very well-established training camp where we have up to eight European instructors and a team of Congolese instructors leading a comprehensive training programme.
On top of that each ranger gets close security training on how to handle so-called VIP security, and every visitor that comes into the park on an arranged visit is given this type of security.
Virunga has lost more rangers than any other park in Africa, but at the same time, the rangers I have encountered seem dedicated and proud to do their work. Why is this?
The hardest part of my job is having to bury the men that have been entrusted to me. Since I started at Virunga in 2008, 39 rangers have died. Since the war started in 1996, about 160 rangers have died. It’s important to emphasise that most of these rangers have died protecting the local people, not the wildlife.
Despite this, there is exceptional pride in the ranger force. Even though it’s probably one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, not a single ranger has left the ranger corp. They’ve pulled off one of the greatest achievements in modern conservation, which is not just the protection of the mountain gorillas but also the recovery of the gorilla population, which has quadrupled since 1985.
There’s a very strong tradition of wildlife conservation in eastern Congo and it all started in Virunga National Park, the oldest park in Africa. Many of the rangers here are the children or grandchildren of former rangers. There is a lot of pride in the uniform, but also very strong sense of community.
How many members belong to the militias? What’s the scale of the challenge?
In this province, North Kivu, the UN estimates there to be between 5 000 to 8 000 armed combatants, which seems like a lot but they are spread over a very large area. One-third of that figure would be around the park.
This is a situation that we believe we can manage at this stage. We have 550 rangers right now, and we will have another 200 by the end of this year, so a total of about 750 rangers. They’re well trained and well-equipped. All the rangers were re-armed at the end of last year by the Congolese government and they’ve all followed very intensive training. There’s strong leadership and so certainly as far as tourism is concerned, we’re confident about maintaining security.
What is your current budget, and where does the majority of your funding come from? Ideally, what do you need from a financial perspective to run the park optimally?
This year (2017) our budget was about US$ 9 million for all park related activities including tourism. Most of our funding comes from the Buffet Foundation and European Union. Tourism already contributes more than US$ 2 million per year.
Ideally, we need a budget of US$ 11 million. We’ll reach this figure over the next two years. This is to manage the entirety of the park, which is 8 000 square kilometres of mountains, swamps, savannahs, rivers and lakes. The park has over 900km of open boundary, which is extensive, especially given the social and physical context of eastern DRC.
What level of negotiation is taking place, if any, with the militias?
We don’t work with the militia groups ever, and that’s a red line for us. We have to be very, very careful. Negotiation has to be treated with great caution because it can backfire on the park and the local people if it’s not handled very carefully.
What we do, however, is to invest heavily in activities such as job creation in the community that offers alternatives to rebel combatants, so they can choose to disarm and to take on gainful employment. But that’s their choice.
So we simply put the emphasis on job creation and the development activities around the park. Through these, we give the militia alternatives to earning a living. In the last few years we’ve created about 3,000 jobs, and our research shows that between 5-8% of those jobs are picked up by ex-combatants. It’s a natural flow of employment.
What’s the status of oil company SOCO and their proposed drilling in Lake Edward. Have they withdrawn?
That’s been a long story, and a long battle for us. Our position has always been very clear. Under Congolese law and under international law, SOCO’s activities in the park were illegal. That’s clear-cut and so that put us on a collision course with them. Fortunately, they’ve now left Congo altogether and we don’t think they’re coming back, but obviously we’ve remained quite vigilant on that issue.
Have SOCO still got the rights to the oil concession, however?
No, SOCO let the concession rights lapse, but the concession is still in existence. We don’t know exactly what’s happening with that. Another party could potentially come and take that up, but SOCO have disappeared for good, it seems.
You mention that Virunga has created several thousand jobs already. How did that happen, and what’s the long-term goal for job creation?
The overall goal is to generate 100,000 jobs in the community by 2022. We’ve still got a long way to go. We’re just starting really. We’ve created about 3,000 jobs so far, so it’s going to be a tough call to reach our target, but we’re confident we can do it through the four areas of development, which are tourism, energy, sustainable agriculture and fisheries.
Tourism is fairly self-explanatory. It’s an industry that requires a highly qualified workforce for it to work properly, which means that you can generate quality jobs that provide a basis for high levels of training, and subsequently and ultimately become very valued employment in the community. Additionally, 30 percent of all tourism revenue goes straight to local communities, which means we have been able to build new infrastructure like schools and roads.
Energy is the interesting one. That’s the second pillar of our development. Energy in itself doesn’t create a lot of jobs. We’re building small off-grid hydroelectric plants, each generating between 8 to 30 megawatts of power. The plants themselves don’t create that much employment, maybe 50 to 60 workers on a plant once it’s built.
But for every megawatt of electricity that we produce and send into the community, it will create between 800 and 1,000 jobs in that community through business growth. This is essentially because of the availability of a cheap energy source. That’s proven quite reliable as a figure.
So we know that the park can generate between 100-120 megawatts altogether. This is huge. It’s twice what’s being produced in the whole of Rwanda, so it’s a significant amount of electricity. And if we can generate 100-120 megawatts, we can then help create 80 000 to 120,000 jobs in the local communities around the park.
As I mentioned previously, for every 100 jobs that we create, about 5 to 8 are picked up by ex-combatants. So if we can create 100 000 jobs, that’s 5 000 to 8 000 jobs which matches the number of current militias.
This is a remarkable, ambitious goal for a national park in a politically volatile place in Africa, but you’re seemingly on track to deliver the results?
Yes, it’s worth emphasising that Virunga National Park’s main reason for existence is to protect the natural heritage, but it’s higher purpose is to help bring stability and peace to the people of the region. We work for the government, and so we’re simply doing what’s required. In a way we’re following government instructions. Congo has very strict conservation laws that are required of us. The upholding of those laws are required of us by the Congolese government so it’s very straightforward. There’s no ambiguity there.
And you’ve got full support from the head of the state and his government?
You have to look at that in context. We’re hopefully coming out of 20 years of civil war. The government’s under enormous pressure, and there are different critical needs in the local population. Conservation doesn’t occupy a front row seat in terms of the government’s priorities and that’s normal in these circumstances. In terms of government priorities, we’re not top of the list but we understand that. In many ways we consider that to be appropriate but that does require us to be a little bit more resourceful and that’s essentially why we were placed here to manage this park.
What’s interesting is that Virunga seems to have become an island of stability and hope in eastern DRC, whereas other parks in Africa are often viewed quite negatively because they don’t seem to bring any benefits to the local communities or the local people.
It’s nice to hear it put that way, but the reality is that there are still enormous tensions between the park and the people. The reason is that Virunga is a national park that was created during the colonial period in 1925. Back then, the demographic context was very different. Population densities were much lower. Today we have the highest human density in Africa for a rural area – 400 people per square kilometre. So there’s enormous pressure on the land. People have a desperate need for land so it makes it very difficult to justify excluding people from 2 million acres of some of the most fertile soil on the planet.
To resolve those tensions we have to create off-park, sustainable employment. That’s what we’ve been working on, but we haven’t done it yet. We’ve only created 3 000 jobs, but we need 100 000 jobs, and that’s a tall order.
Moving on to conservation of Virunga’s landscapes and wildlife, are there are habitats or animal species – besides mountain gorillas – which need special attention?
Yes, many of them do. The ones that stand out are the elephants and the hippos. Both species’ numbers plummeted during the 1990s but they’re now showing signs of recovery.
Virunga once had the largest hippo population in Africa, about 27,000 hippos in the mid-1980s, or about 20% of the continent’s population. When we did the census in 2005, we found the numbers had crashed to fewer than 350 individuals. It was one of the biggest depletions in wildlife numbers ever recorded, and certainly the biggest for hippos. It meant that the hippos were put on the IUCN red list of critically endangered species but since then they’ve climbed from 350 individuals to about 2,500, but that’s with very intensive protection.
Elephants haven’t started to show similarly big signs of recovery, but we haven’t lost an elephant to poachers in 18 months now, which has been good. We manage elephants very intensively as well. We’ve put radio collars on the individuals associated with particular herds, and that’s beginning to yield quite good results.
You’ve spoken about creating 100,000 jobs but what role would you like to see Virunga playing in DRC as a whole?
The DRC’s recent history has been a very difficult. It’s seen the bloodiest civil war in Africa ever. Six million people have died as a result of the war. Every single one of the wars that have afflicted Congo and the countries around it have started either in or around the national park. So the fundamental purpose of this national park is to help bring stability and peace to the region.
In achieving stability you also achieve conservation and local development objectives. So if we able to help bring stability, then we’re also concurrently achieving our conservation goals.
What keeps you motivated and driven in the face of so many challenges?
There are a number of things. The privilege of living in Virunga is enormously motivating because it’s such an inspiring place to be. The mountain gorillas, the extraordinary landscapes and the diversity of wild animals. I came out to Congo twenty-four years ago. I was originally only meant to spend three months here as a researcher and biologist, then I was going to move to Ethiopia. But I’m still here, so this region does hold you prisoner.
But the most important factor of all is the people that support me in this work. It’s the team that I have around me and the people in this region that are, by and large, very welcoming and very supportive. My team is what makes it all possible. The support I get is extraordinary. They are exceptional people.
I rely heavily on my rangers. Men like Innocent Mburanumwe, who is the warden of the southern sector. His father and grandfathers were both rangers. He is undoubtedly the world’s expert on Virunga’s mountain gorillas. He grew up with them, and knows every single gorilla individually.
For a long time, Rodrigue Katembo was the warden of the central section of the park. Now he is runningg Upemba National Park. He was once forcibly recruited as a child soldier, fought in the first Congo civil war, and then put himself through school and university, graduating with a Masters degree. He is a highly motivated person.
The warden of the north – Norbert Mushenzi – has been at Virunga since 1968, and has lived through all the difficulties that Virunga had known. He has huge experience.
I don’t think I could find anything like my team anywhere else on earth, so I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
How long do you plan to be at Virunga?
I’ll stay here as long as I’m welcome here.
Your family lives in Nairobi, and your job takes you away from your family and your home. What is the impact on your family of your role here and your job?
It’s the hardest part of the work, certainly, but I have a very supportive, sympathetic family that share those same values in terms of the role conservation needs to play in Africa. I would tend to go home about once every two months only for a few days. My daughters, who are ten and twelve years old, have come here and they’re very fond of Virunga.
After you were shot in an ambush in 2014, did you consider resigning from your post as director of Virunga National Park?
No. Not at all. I had all the support of my team. Even when terrible things have happened here, and I’m not special in this respect, there is incredible kindness and determination to keep going. Virunga will be a great victory for conservation, and it will be a team victory.