The remarkable success of this should not be underestimated. Having crossed behind enemy lines to interview Nkunda myself, I know him to be slick, brutal, and ambitious. De Merode, a park director, single-handedly persuaded Nkunda—a guerrilla commander whose troops are known for committing atrocities—to recognize the value of conservation regardless of the geopolitical situation. In the process, he created a new paradigm for world conservation: namely, that combatants can preserve rare species and their environments while continuing to kill each other.
In November 2008, de Merode’s rangers tramped back into Mikeno and began a mountain gorilla census. No rangers had seen the world-famous primates for over a year. “As far as we can tell, the gorillas are safe and well,” Innocent Mburanumwe, director of the gorilla monitoring program, told me in December. “We are so relieved and are feeling very, very good about this situation.”
Forty-one armed rangers are still hiking through the deep jungles of Mikeno, documenting the welfare of Virunga’s gorillas. All of the apes are known personally to these men, many of whom are fourth generation rangers. Numbers are not exact yet, but the Kabirizi group, the largest band of gorillas in Virunga with some 30 individuals, has had five new births and five natural deaths. The Humba group has grown from nine to ten apes, and other families also seem to have survived the never ending war unscathed. And yet it is ultimately not war, but habitat loss through deforestation, that presents the greatest long-term danger to the survival of the mountain gorilla. Charcoal is the primary cooking fuel for the two million people who surround the park—and that charcoal is made mostly from illegally cut old-growth inside Virunga. “The energy crisis is the biggest threat to the park,” said de Merode. Characteristically, de Merode has met the challenge head-on, co-creating an alternative-energy program from scratch: hand-built briquette presses. “Briquettes can be made from grass, leaves, essentially anything burnable,” he said, “and the presses themselves are built from local materials at a cost of $155 each.”
A 110-pound bag of briquettes costs $30, significantly less than a bag of charcoal. The park service is now building ten briquette press kits a day and plans to produce 5,000 in the next three years, enough to replace the need for charcoal as well as employ 30,000 people in alternative-energy production.
Through de Merode’s brinkmanship, Virunga rangers are not only saving the gorillas, but also the lives of eastern Congolese citizens. Perhaps because of de Merode’s efforts, the UN has named 2009 the Year of the Gorilla. True to form, de Merode is both sanguine and realistic about the developments he has instigated. “We don’t know what the future holds, and anyone who pretends to know what will happen knows the situation least of all. That said, I admit I’m extremely encouraged.”