RUMANGABO, Congo — A call saying one of his trucks has been looted barely ruffles Gilbert Dilis. The former Belgian commando who runs security at Virunga National Park, home to some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas, has much more to worry about.
The 273 park rangers under his command risk death to do their job. “Most of the time it’s ambushes from different rebel groups,” Dilis said. The rangers “know how to fight, but nobody is invincible,” he added.
The park in eastern Congo, parts of which have been overrun by rebel groups for years, was just beginning to enjoy record numbers of tourist arrivals when war broke out earlier this year, forcing the park to close and endangering both the gorillas and the rangers who police the reserve.
“In 20 years in Congo, it’s by far the most violent period I’ve ever known,” said Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian park director, who says arrivals had been set to double to 6,000 this year and pull in a record $2 million.
The world’s last 800 mountain gorillas live on the borders of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, and their presence is a draw for wealthy tourists. “It was looking very, very promising, and unfortunately we came a cropper on the political situation,” de Merode said.
Army mutineers, known as M23, now hold much of the Rutshuru territory north of Goma, the provincial capital. Park turf under their command includes the part that is home to 200 mountain gorillas, as well as a new $1.2 million luxury lodge whose wine cellar doubled as a bunker for unarmed civilians when fighting spilled into the park.
For now an uneasy relationship exists between the environmentalists who run the park and rebels accused of war crimes, including summary executions, rape and forced recruitment of child soldiers.
U.N. experts say that Rwanda has supplied weapons and recruits to the rebels through the gorilla-inhabited section of the park, claims denied by both Rwanda and M23. Park officials say they have no direct evidence of Rwandan involvement.
Col. Sultani Makenga, M23’s leader, accepts the presence of park officials, according to de Merode and M23. “He came to see us,” de Merode said. “We’re not a threat to them, and we have to keep the park going, and we can’t leave. He accepted that.”
The park has not paid protection money to the rebels, de Merode and M23 said. “We have to stay very neutral — we risk losing the park if we play that game,” de Merode said. “Our job is to keep the park going through this conflict . . . and we’ve already lost our revenues from the suspension of tourism.”
But the presence of the rebels makes it difficult to monitor the gorillas. On two occasions when park rangers sought to locate the animals, they were disarmed by the rebels and forced to withdraw. Park rangers are still trying to locate two gorilla families after more than four months.
Worse, one of four orphan gorillas has died during the fighting, after the nine-year-old — rescued from a poacher’s snare five years ago — became ill and it was too dangerous to bring in a vet because of heavy shelling.
De Merode also cites “successive reports” that the rebels are taking tourists in from Uganda to see the gorillas at $300 a trip, less than half the rates charged elsewhere in the region. Official permits to visit the gorillas are in high demand because visits and group sizes are limited to safeguard their welfare.
“We’ve told them [the rebels] it’s dangerous, extremely irresponsible and potentially very destructive for the gorillas,” de Merode said. “They want the money, basically.”
Rebels dismiss those claims as false, saying they have a good relationship with park authorities. “Col Makenga has already authorized monitoring, and the park is protected,” said M23 spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama.
For the commando-trained park rangers, armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and heavy machine guns, the risks are high. More than 130 rangers have been killed since 1996, in efforts to stop everything from rebel attacks to elephant poaching and illegal charcoal burning.
The latest batch of rangers spent six months training under former Belgian commandos, making them among the best fighting forces in a country beset by vicious militias, rebel groups and ill-disciplined national troops.
“We are organized like an army,” said one ranger, 35-year old Desire Sekibibi. Last weekend, the rangers launched an offensive on rebels from another group whom they considered responsible for killing five elephants, but they have so far avoided battle with M23. De Merode said their scant numbers made any attack “inconceivable.”
Andre Bauma, another ranger, said: “We’ve given ourselves to nature conservation — I’m afraid I will be killed, but it’s my vocation. If you see how we have kept these baby gorillas since their mother was killed, you see they are our children.”
De Merode insists that Congo could one day overtake Rwanda’s gorilla-led tourism sector, that country’s highest foreign exchange earner, worth $252 million last year. “It’s very similar to what Rwanda had in the late 90s,” he said, adding that people were saying “But you’ve just come out of a genocide . . . .”
Park officials say the variety throughout Virunga’s nearly 2 million acres beats anything else in Africa, including Kenya’s Masai Mara and Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
The park is home not only to lowland and mountain gorillas, but also chimpanzees, lions and an active volcano with a tented camp on its rim that overlooks the world’s biggest lava lake.
“It’s the rebuilding of a country, and the thing about tourism is that it creates jobs within the local population and small businesses,” said de Merode, who notes that the park is still investing in three tented camps to be delivered by the end of the year. “Even if it seems a bit crazy right now, we’re absolutely convinced it will work.”