Published: March 2009Special Report: Congo's Mountain Gorillas

Gorillas vs. Guerrillas

In chaotic Congo, one man is working with lawless rebel forces to save a species.

Text by Mark Jenkins
Photograph by Brent Stirton / Reportage by Getty Images

Update: In our March 2009 issue, writer Mark Jenkins examines how the bloody upheaval in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has affected one of the planet’s largest populations of mountain gorillas. His story focuses on the head ranger of Virunga National Park, Emmanuel de Merode, who brokered a groundbreaking peace accord with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, allowing his rangers to operate behind enemy lines and monitor the gorillas. Today, General Nkunda, who Jenkins describes as “slick, brutal, and ambitious,” was arrested by Congolese and Rwandan soldiers. It is a remarkable turnabout for Nkunda, who had become one of Congo’s chief power brokers. But the arrest does not assure peace in Congo, nor does it ensure the safety of the mountain gorillas. The man replacing Nkunda, General Bosco Ntaganda, is known as "the butcher" and is also wanted on crimes against humanity. De Merode’s work continues and, as Jenkins explains, he will most likely have to keep rewriting the rules of conservation to ensure the mountain gorillas’ survival.

Emmanuel de Merode is a man on a dangerous mission: to save Congo’s mountain gorillas, one of the most imperiled creatures on Earth. There are only about 720 mountain gorillas left on the planet, 200 of which live in war-ravaged Virunga National Park in the far eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the other 500 thrive just across the border in peaceful Uganda and Rwanda, and lure millions in tourist dollars each year). • In 2007 ten of Virunga’s precious mountain gorillas were murdered. Shortly after the killings, I went to eastern Congo to report from the field for National Geographic. After months of investigation, unbelievably, the then director of the park, Honoré Mashagiro, the man whose sworn duty was to protect Virunga, was implicated in the murders. Fired by the Congolese park service, Mashagiro is now being tried in court. De Merode, a 38-year-old Belgian anthropologist, replaced Mashagiro in August 2008 and inherited more mortally serious problems than any park warden in the world.

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