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.
“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.”
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.”