by Cara Ludlow
Four years after the release of Orlando Von Einsiedel’s landmark documentary, the future of Virunga National Park hangs in the balance.
In 2012, a bright-eyed Orlando Von Einsiedel landed in the Congo to film a brand new documentary. It was a period of relative peace, and he was searching for a story that could show the Congo in a new light, set apart from its history of violence, famine and corruption. What he discovered was Virunga National Park: a remarkable hub of biodiversity, the home of critically endangered mountain gorillas, a fly-trap for tourists, and the source of amazing development projects, kick-started by a dynamic park director, Emmanuel De Monde, and his team of diligent rangers.
By the time the film was released, Von Einsiedel’s hopeful vision had taken a dark turn. He’d begun investigating a London-based oil company called SOCO, who were prospecting and drilling in Virunga illegally, and brokering back street deals with armed rebels and government officials. Soon enough, the M23 rebellion broke out, and he found himself filming its horrific consequences: the destruction of the park, the funerals of scores of rangers, the deaths of baby gorillas, and carnage across eastern Congo.
Far from presenting a new vision of the Congo, Virunga became a powerful portrayal of how the country’s potential had been crushed by conflict and corruption. Four years after the film’s release, things have gone from bad to worse, and Virunga may be in more jeopardy than ever.
A violent history
Virunga is the world’s oldest national park. Spanning 8000km – the size of Yellowstone – it teems with rare species, delicate ecosystems and half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas. It could be heaven on earth, but for a fatal flaw: deep reserves of oil and precious minerals, which have fuelled the most bloody and destructive civil war in living memory.
The profits reaped from illegally exploiting Virunga’s mineral wealth have been poured into arming rebel groups, who have not only butchered each other and countless civilians, but also staged political coups that have left the country in chaos.
The civil war has claimed six million lives, sucked in soldiers from eight different countries, and at its peak, led to widespread rape, disease and hunger. Unsurprisingly, Western oil companies have been quick to take advantage of the resulting poverty and unrest, handing out hefty bribes for the pleasure of drilling in vulnerable areas of the park.
The only thing preventing Virunga from being plundered, and its mountain gorillas going extinct, is a force of park rangers. Their job is one of the most dangerous in the world, and rebels have killed over 170 rangers in the last twenty years. Despite the high fatality rate of their work, these men and women are unfazed, believing that Virunga and its wildlife are worth stepping in front of bullets for.
An uncertain future
When Virunga was released in 2014, it made shockwaves in powerful circles. Under the pressure of the British government - and even a public outcry from Richard Branson, Desmond Tutu and Howard Buffett - SOCO finally withdrew from the Congo. It was a momentous achievement, but in the intervening years, little has really changed for Virunga.
2018 has been an especially turbulent episode in the park’s history. Violence has escalated, and Emanuel De Monde was forced to declare Virunga a no-go zone for tourists until next year. Six rangers were slaughtered in a single ambush – the worst attack to date. Another ranger was gunned down attempting to save two British tourists from armed gunmen, who held them hostage for a six-figure ransom. Elephant poaching, bush meat hunting, unlicensed fishing and charcoal smuggling have stormed ahead. To top it all off, fearing the effect of the violence, Chinese conservationists attempted to export the park’s mountain gorillas into their own zoos.
A major trigger for the recent violence is a dangerous political situation. President Kabila has refused to stand down from office, continually postponing the election, and making every attempt to corrupt the voting process. As it stands, the election is due to be held on December 30th, but if Kabila keeps delaying, the Congo has every chance of spiraling into another disastrous civil war. Tensions are already high, and many have been killed and seriously injured at protest rallies across the country.
This summer, the Congolese government also drew up plans to permit oil exploration in Virunga and Solonga national parks. They were met with furious opposition from environmentalists, who warned of the devastating impact on wildlife and global warming. Officials dismissed these concerns, defending their right to authorize drilling anywhere in the Congo.
The park is now under threat from all sides: open for exploitation, with little hope of clawing back tourism, and on the cusp of being torn apart by another vicious conflict. If the Congo doesn’t receive a fair election soon, and if a new president doesn’t repeal the plan to allow oil drilling in this delicate region, there’s little telling what Virunga may look like in a year’s time. The future of our most ancient and beautiful national park hangs in the balance.
To find out what you can do to protect Virunga, visit: https://virunga.org/