The Virunga National Park runs like a ribbon along Congo’s eastern lip, 3,000 square miles stretching from the snow-topped Rwenzori Mountains in the north to the thick forests blanketing the area around the dormant volcano Mount Mikeno in the south.
The region is Africa’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. The park’s borders hold some of the most biologically diverse wildlife on the continent, including lions, elephants, hippos and the endangered mountain gorillas. But in recent years, because of aftershocks of internal strife in Congo as well as a spillover of tension from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, the park has also held a constant threat of violence.
Last Friday, a group driving into the park ran right into that threat.
British tourists — Bethan Davies and Robert Jesty — were driving into the park near the village of Kibati, the BBC reported. Four armed men jumped into the road and fired into the vehicle. In the ensuing melee, a 25-year-old park ranger was killed trying to defend the visitors.
Rachel Masika Baraka was one of the 26 women rangers among park’s wildlife force. After she was mortally wounded, the gunmen marched Davies, Jesty and their injured driver, Guystave Mbiye, into the wilderness.
Hours into the trek, the kidnappers left Mbiye behind with a message.
“One of them said to me ‘I will leave you here, if they find you, tell them we need $200,000 and if they keep on chasing us, we will kill these two,’ ” Mbiye told the Telegraph. “It’s only by God’s grace, that’s why I’m still alive.”
On Sunday, Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, announced that Davies and Jesty had been safely recovered. It was not clear how the British citizens were freed or whether the ransom was paid.
“I pay tribute to the help of the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] authorities and Congolese Institute of Nature Conservation,” Johnson said on Twitter. “My thoughts with the family of the ranger tragically killed during the kidnapping.”
Baraka’s death underscores the increasing violence within the Virunga National Park. She is the eighth ranger killed there this year, according to a release from park officials. She is also the first woman ranger killed in the park’s long history of turmoil.
A colleague told the Telegraph that Baraka was “a devoted conservationist.” Another noted, “Her only thought would have been the safety and security of visitors to the park who were on the convoy.”
Unfortunately, Baraka and her fellow rangers are working under hostile conditions. Over the past 20 years, more than 170 rangers have been killed at Virunga National Park, part of what Innocent Mburanumwe, the park’s deputy director, described to the Guardian last April as “a low intensity war.”
“Every day when the patrols set out, we know that they may come under fire,” Mburanumwe told the paper. “We know we may lose someone or we may be killed ourselves.”
The threat is linked to the numerous nefarious groups in the park. Various militia groups, remnants of Congo’s 2003 civil war and factions from neighboring nations. Add the lure of meat and ivory poaching, as well as illicit deforestation that feeds the charcoal industry, and there are various illicit trades running through the region.
“It’s part of a bigger picture that involves the trafficking of natural resources,” park director Emmanuel de Merode told the BBC in April. “The trafficking was estimated last year to be worth over $170 million in revenue, of which these militia groups, and there are many of them, are drawing about $47 million. This is the scale of what the rangers are up against.”
Last April, six rangers were killed in an attack in the central region of Virunga. In August 2017, five rangers were dead after a gun battle on the shores of the park’s Lake Edward. As de Merode told the BBC, the park’s protectors are simply outnumbered.
“Ten years ago when we started, there were 230 rangers. Today there are about 800,” he said. “But we estimate there to be between 1,500 and 2,000 militia in and around the park. It remains a very difficult job.”
Following their release from capture, Davies and Jesty released a statement through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: “We are very relieved that there has been a positive outcome to the kidnapping and are very grateful for the excellent support we have received,” the pair said, according to HuffPost. “We do not plan to comment further.”
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