© Ollivier Girard, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)
Since 1996, over 100 Congo Rangers have lost their lives protecting wildlife in Virunga National Park. Many others have been kidnapped and mutilated. It’s not just poachers who make life so dangerous for the rangers that work here, it’s also the presence and activities of armed rebel groups who use the park as a hideout.
Although the civil war may have been officially over since 2003, renegade militia (both Congolese factions and rebel groups from neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda) continue to use the Virungas both as a battle and hunting ground. With its sweeping forests for camouflage and abundant wildlife for poaching, the Virungas offer obvious attractions to the rebels.
Hidden deep in the forests, rebels have easy access to all sorts of wildlife for both filling their own bellies and for selling on as bushmeat elsewhere; the fact that some of the animals they hunt are endangered species does not suppress their appetites.
Twenty years ago, the park’s Lake Edward was once home to the world’s most important hippo stocks. Then, there were almost 30,000 of them; now there are estimated to be just 300. The decimation of the hippo population has been largely attributed to prolonged rebel activity around it.
One rebel group – the Mayi-Mayi – have planned the slaughter of the lake’s hippos with almost military precision. During 2006, unchallenged and in broad daylight, Mayi-Mayi rebels aboard motorboats armed with AK47s moved from pod to pod shooting hippo until the waters of Lake Edward turned red with their blood. Meat and ivory (from the animal’s long canine teeth) were then sold, with the profits used to purchase more arms. This was neither an unusual nor an isolated incident.
Such scenes might seem impossible to imagine happening in a national park elsewhere, but the Virunga National Park is far from typical. Against thousands of armed rebels, over 3,000 square miles of jungle, forest and savanna, and the wildlife within it, is protected by only 640 rangers.
Hugely outnumbered, with no military training or weapons and access to just one off-road vehicle, in the Virungas just defending patrol posts and staying alive is the biggest challenge facing the Congo Rangers. Little wonder that hippo, elephant and buffalo numbers in the park were able to fall so low.
Recognising the impossible odds stacked up against the rangers in their efforts to protect endangered wildlife, a collaborative initiative between the EU, the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and Wildlife Direct (formerly known as the African Conservation Fund) was set up to help relieve the situation in 2006. Robert Muir, the DR Congo project leader with the FZS, explains: ‘In their work protecting wildlife in the Virungas, the Congo Rangers haven’t lacked commitment or bravery – they’ve lacked training and tools. Our mission has been to help fill the gaps in the rangers’ resources and provide practical support in the provision of training and equipment.’
Support first materialised in the form of training by professional military officers from Britain and South Africa. During training, 52 rangers were selected for further intensive instruction. Of these, 49 got through the course and were divided into three troops. Equipped with their own uniforms, vehicles and rifles, these men are known as Advance Force Rangers.
These elite rangers are meant to be deployed in emergency situations only. In the Virungas this means they work non-stop. Although poaching by rebels has been reduced and many arrests have been made, the situation remains fragile. Left virtually to their own devices by the government, rebels still rule the Virungas. Gorillas have been killed and eaten and although the Mayi-Mayi did agree in January 2007 to leave the gorillas alone, threats are still made to wipe out the species in the park. Rangers are still killed and maimed.
In May 2007, the Burusi Patrol Post in the eastern section of the Virungas was raided by the Mayi-Mayi. One ranger was killed on the spot, the pregnant wife of another ranger died later from her injuries, three were seriously injured and 13 kidnapped. Weapons and communications equipment were also taken.
Better equipped and better trained, the Congo Rangers have more of a fighting chance than ever before. But they still face incredible risks. To fully protect the wildlife that inhabits the world’s most dangerous national park, more men, more training and more equipment are still needed. Until the rebels are either assimilated into the regular army or leave the Virungas, the Advanced Forces of the Congo Rangers must continue to operate in full-time emergency mode.
The Congo Rangers need funds for vital and basic equipment including boots, uniforms, vehicles and communications equipment as well as for medical costs for injured rangers and their families. To find out more about donating as well as donating online, see www.wildlifedirect.org. For background information on the various conservation projects in the Virunga National Park and to read blogs posted by members of the Congo Rangers, see www.wildlifedirect.org. To find out more about the work of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, see www.zgf.de.