The warden of Africa’s oldest park is the latest victim of Congo violence


Emmanuel de Merode poses at park headquarters in August 2012. (AP)

The chief warden of Africa's oldest national park was ambushed and shot Wednesday in eastern Congo, and officials aren't sure of the gunmen's motives, a sign of the numerous threats in the park and the country.

Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian, has been director of Virunga National Park since 2008 and has worked to keep the park and its wildlife safe as violence has shaken much of the eastern part of the country. He was seriously wounded, but a spokeswoman for the park said Wednesday that he was in stable condition. The BBC reports that more than 130 park rangers have been killed in Virunga since 1996.

 

 


From 2007 (Stephanie McCrummen/The Post)

Virunga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, notable for its active volcanoes and mountain gorilla population -- the park's Web site says a quarter of the 880 mountain gorillas left on the planet live there. It's in the northeastern part of Congo, bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga was established in 1925 by the Belgians and drew attention in the 1970s, when zoologist Dian Fossey worked there. But then in 1994, armed militiamen and refugees fled from the genocide in Rwanda, sparking violence that hasn't fully ended. The park continues to face threats from militias and from poachers who steal baby gorillas or kill adults. A British oil firm, Soco, has also drawn fire from the WWF for its plans to explore for oil there.


Mount Nyamulagira erupts in 2011. (Cai Tjeenk Willink/Virunga National Park/AP)

Ongoing violence in Congo has gotten attention on Capitol Hill due to actor Ben Affleck, who testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February. He co-founded the nonprofit Eastern Congo Initiative in 2010 to help economic development in the country.

In 2012, the Financial Times reported that de Merode said both that Congo was facing its most violent period he'd seen in 20 years, and that tourists were expected to double, to 6,000 that year.


(Stephanie McCrummen/Post)

In 2012, the park's official site posted about crisis in the park, as war threatened both the gorillas there and the rangers who worked there. The video says three of the park's men were killed that year. Caution: Some of the footage shows dead animals.

A documentary on the park, called "Virunga," is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Here's where de Merode was traveling:

Read about a 2007 visit to Virunga by The Post's Stephanie McCrummen.

Terri Rupar is The Post's mobile product editor.
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