By Alain Mukiranya
Virunga National Park, created in 1925 and located in the North Kivu Province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is the oldest and most biodiverse national park in Africa.
When it was created, the main objective was to protect the mountain gorillas. It was designated as Albert Park at its inception. Its current name dates from 1969, and its area was expanded in 1929 and again in 1950 to its current size.
The park covers about 790,000 hectares from the volcanic Virunga chain that gives it its name in the south, to the mountainous Rwenzori massif, covered with eternal snow in the north, passing through the savannah plain of the Rwindi.
This diversity of landscapes has allowed the existence of the most important biodiversity of all the protected areas in Africa.
Several emblematic species find a favourable habitat there, such as lions, amphibious hippopotamus as well as three taxa of great apes: the mountain gorilla, the Grauer’s gorilla and the eastern chimpanzee.
In 1979, it was declared a World Heritage Site, but joined the list of world heritage in danger in 1994.
Throughout its turbulent history, Virunga National Park has faced several armed conflicts and has long been a safe haven for armed militias.
Insecurity in the eastern part of the DRC remains the greatest challenge to the management of Virunga National Park.
The killings that are perpetrated every day in and around the Virunga National Park, in the northern sector by the Allied Democratic Forces and the activism of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and Mai-mai armed groups in the central sectors and recently the M23 rebels, do not facilitate monitoring and hinder the park’s conservation efforts.
The mountain gorillas, a flagship and emblematic specie of Virunga, are in danger of extinction and constantly threatened by poaching, deforestation and especially war in their natural habitat where these primates reign in the dense forests on the green slopes of the Virunga volcanoes.
Since the resurgence of fighting between the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23) and the Congolese army, rangers and other services have not had access to the Mikeno Gorilla sector for more than six months, where the largest number of mountain gorillas, estimated at more than one-third of the world’s population, are found.
The resurgence of M23 is having a very negative impact on gorilla conservation in Virunga National Park.
Currently, the rebels occupy the entire gorilla sector, forcing the rangers to abandon all ranger positions and patrol posts in the gorilla sector.
At present, it is not known how the gorillas are fed and how they are treated in case of illness, nor is it known how many births or deaths there are.
This endangers this species of mammals, which represents a cultural value for the local community and a hope for the country’s tourism, an important economic sector.
Are the rebels causing destruction in the park?
Virunga Park has the largest concentration of armed groups today, with eight to nine of them occupying it, including the M23 in the southern zone.
The latter group has really intensified its activities in recent weeks under the silent attention of the international community.
The entire southern part of Virunga Park is controlled by this armed group.
This group is preventing us from doing our work of monitoring biodiversity and community projects, and is engaged in the destruction of the park in violation of the Convention on the Protection of the World Natural and Cultural Heritage, which the DRC has ratified.
The M23 rebel occupation is preventing rangers from making patrols to track poachers and other illegal activities in this part of the park.
This would make it easier for poachers to resume their activities of destroying wildlife without embarrassment, as is done by some elements of the M23, who are also reportedly engaged in the slaughter of wild animals for their livelihood.
One of the objectives of this movement is essentially economic, by controlling the border posts with Uganda at Bunagana and Ishasha and part of National Road 2.
The areas on the edge of the park are also rich in agricultural products that the population used to practise, charcoal from the deforestation of the park, and minerals; the simple control of the traffic ensures a comfortable income for the rebels, who unfortunately are at the root of the destruction of the park.
Having set up some of their bases in the park, the M23 rebels are responsible for several violent attacks on the positions of rangers from the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, of which officer Emery Kabaranga lost his life on November 15, 2021 while at his post in Bukima in the Gorilla sector, in addition to 26 other rangers killed in 2021 alone.
What about the park’s infrastructure and projects?
The infrastructures and projects of the Virunga National Park are also targeted by the M23. The latest case to fall victim to a violent attack on the morning of Tuesday, August 16, 2022, was the construction site of the new Rwanguba hydroelectric power station, in the territory of Rutshuru, in North Kivu.
The attack, which involved heavy artillery fire, resulted in two explosive devices falling in the middle of the site, which includes residential facilities for workers and construction workshops.
It resulted in significant material damage, including to construction equipment. According to local communities, the artillery fire came from M23 positions located less than five kilometres from the site.
There were no casualties among the staff because the park authorities were able to evacuate the site as soon as the attack began. Unfortunately, several victims died in the surrounding villages.
For about six months, no patrols have been conducted in the southern part of the park.
And what is to be known is that the agents of the park are blocked in the headquarters in Rumangabo where all are concentrated after having abandoned the posts of patrols and controls that had the southern sector.
The evacuation of the civilian staff of the park to the city of Goma after the decline of the city of Rumangabo and the headquarters of the park in the hands of the rebels had failed several times before succeeding after a negotiation, lobbying and systematic control of the vehicles that transported them and of the travel sheet with the names of all the agents and their identity documents.
Some of the park’s vehicles, buildings and other equipment were taken by force and used by the rebels.
The movement of rangers with vehicles was prohibited on National Road 2. Only the Director of the Park used to run some errands with his small plane from Rumangabo to Goma, but since the war has been intense at the gateway to Goma, the rebels no longer allow him to fly over.
Biodiversity in the park
In August, we lost a silverback gorilla, the circumstances of which are not known due to the lack of access to the area because of the rebel occupation of the area.
Only the testimonies of the local population had reported this. The M23 is believed to be responsible or involved in some way in the killing of this gorilla because it is under their occupation.
We ask that an evaluation be made of the application of the decree creating the Corps in charge of the Protection of National Parks and related natural reserves (CorPPN).
The mission of this body is to protect the integrity of protected areas, including the ecosystems of the Virunga National Park, the staff of the Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) and the local communities.
Thus, we ask the National Assembly to evaluate this decree, after more than five years since its promulgation.
The Ministries of National Defence, Environment, Tourism and ICCN, each in their respective areas, should also conduct a self-evaluation of their role in the implementation of the decree.
The international community, of which the United Nations Organisation Stabilization Mission in the DRC is the representative, needs to support CorPPN in order to combat poaching that is damaging this World Heritage Site.
As Virunga National Park is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site and Ramsar site, there is an urgent need to establish international and independent investigations to punish those responsible for the intentional destruction of this heritage of humanity, as this is a crime against humanity.
What a ranger’s normal working day is like
Before the resurgence of hostilities by the M23, monitoring and community activities were still taking place in a better climate than the current one.
Of course, the security situation was not very reassuring, and one had to take security precautions or have a good chance to go to the field and return.
The situation has never been reassuring for more than 25 years since the beginning of the endless wars in Eastern DRC.
Civilians are caught in the crossfire between the M23 rebels and the Congolese armed forces. Fighting between the army and M23 rebels in eastern DRC continues to claim lives of many civilians, including children.
Several civilians have been summarily killed by the M23; the main accusation is that they collaborated with or informed the Congolese army of their positions and hideouts.
According to testimonies received from the displaced, some civilians have been shot while trying to flee, while others are executed at close range.
Yet the deliberate killing of civilians is a serious violation of international humanitarian law, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and constitutes a war crime.
Why Virunga is perfect hiding place for M23
Virunga National Park is always chosen as a hideout for the M23 because of its many resources, including wildlife, charcoal and minerals which the rebels exploit, loot, poach and sell.
This park is also strategic because of its geographical location, bordering Rwanda and Uganda, which means that in the event of danger, the rebels will flee to Rwanda and Uganda.
The M23 also hides in Virunga for its forest, hills and mountains that allow it to hide and monitor various movements in the valleys and plains.
Gorillas and gunshots
When confronted with the sounds of boots and gunshots, gorillas react as humans do by moving to a place deemed quiet in their natural habitat already reduced by deforestation due to anthropogenic activities including charcoal and lumber manufacturing, agricultural expansion and urbanisation.
In past years, some groups of gorillas have even crossed the border into Rwanda to fight their way into their peaceful natural habitat.
Given the current situation in the park and the current unknown status of the gorillas, there is an urgent need to support the Gorilla Ambassadors programme to document the survival of the gorillas during this unending period of hostilities and abandonment through storytelling.
We are facing several major challenges due to the continued insecurity caused by the presence of armed groups in the park, the lack of technical and educational materials and financial support, the acceptance and involvement of the entire population in the programme’s activities, the volcanic eruption, and the lack of support from the government departments and park managers.
Alain Mukiranya is deputy director for Gorilla Ambassadors Programme, an environmental education programme created in 2019 by a group of young environmentalists to contribute to the conservation of the Virunga National Park