“I am under no illusions about the difficulties,” he said recently, during a phone interview from Congo. It was midnight his time, and he’d spent the entire day tracking gorillas. “At present the central and eastern sectors of the park are essentially a no-man’s-land, infected by rebel forces who are shooting elephants for bush meat.”
De Merode is an understated but indefatigably forceful man. Before being named park director, he had worked in Virunga for seven years, then joined with renowned conservationist Richard Leakey to form WildlifeDirect, an NGO focused on protecting the mountain gorillas. If there’s any man alive who can save Virunga, it’s de Merode. But the task is unimaginably daunting.
Virunga is ground zero for the current insurgency in Congo’s decade-long war, whose origins can be traced to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Hutu tribesmen butchered some 800,000 Tutsis before the rule of law was reestablished and the Hutus fled west, crossing the border into Congo. Ten years later, a self-proclaimed savior named Laurent Nkunda, a rogue general with ties to the Rwandan military, formed his own guerrilla army bent on either killing the génocidaires or bringing them to justice. Secretly sponsored by Rwanda, Nkunda’s rebels have been waging war against not only the Hutus in Virunga, but also against the Congolese army. Over 120 Virunga rangers have been killed in the past decade, caught in the cross fire of poachers, rebels, and the military—the highest death toll for any national park in the world.
In September 2007, Nkunda’s forces captured the Mikeno Sector of Virunga, a region where all of the park’s mountain gorillas live. For over 14 months, Nkunda would not allow officials into the park. When de Merode became director, his first priority was to get rangers back into Mikeno. To do so, he had to negotiate directly with Nkunda. “I was honest,” said de Merode. “I told him I had sworn allegiance to the Congolese park service and that I was not free to do whatever he desired. Nkunda’s a smart guy. He understands good PR, knows how valuable the gorillas are to world heritage, and allowed us to come back.”