The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is celebrated as one of the most biodiverse ecoregions on the planet. Nestled within the dense eastern jungle lies the Virunga National Park—the oldest and largest park of its kind in Africa. The park is home to an array of endemic and endangered species, including approximately one third of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. Five million people live within a day’s walk of the park in communities adversely impacted by historic inequality and political instability, creating a complex landscape for conservation efforts.
Despite the imperative to protect the park and its wildlife, conservation efforts are under constant threat of disruption from poachers, human-wildlife conflicts, and resource extraction, which is widely acknowledged as a dominant driver of increased pressure on this natural treasure. As a means to mitigate resource extraction and build greater stability in the region, the park promotes ecotourism, which creates jobs for local residents (see video).
The Virunga Friends Fund at CAF America allows the park administration to raise funds from donors in the United States to support operational costs and enable its vital work to continue. To support its mission of conservation, the park is staffed by a team of 689 rangers—local men and women who go through extensive training to become expert stewards of the park and its wildlife. In addition to their stewardship role, the rangers function as frontline protectors against poachers seeking to profit from blackmarket sales of ivory, skins, and other natural resources.
With the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating poverty in the region, instances of poaching have spiked, making the job even more dangerous for park rangers. Further, armed groups have sought refuge in the park’s vast wilderness, and recently, 6 rangers were tragically attacked and killed in the line of duty. Although the incident shook the foundation of the park’s management, the resilient staff released a statement that it remained “committed to delivering development initiatives that benefit local people and the wider region, and to working in partnership with local communities to bring peace and prosperity to many millions of people whose lives have for too long been blighted by conflict.”
In the face of danger, rangers continue to run conservation programs in Virunga National Park. One of the park’s most successful conservation projects, The Mountain Gorilla project, protects one-third of the world’s remaining endangered mountain gorillas. In addition to gorilla habitat conservation, the park staff runs a mountain gorilla orphanage program to provide care for young gorillas that have been separated from their families. The Senkwekwe Center—the world’s only facility for orphaned mountain gorillas—plays a critical role in gorilla rehabilitation, through the provision of quality care by a team of experts. By caring for this particularly vulnerable population, the park is increasing the chances of survival of a species on the brink of extinction.
The intrinsic value of Africa’s oldest national park, while not quantifiable, is incredibly priceless. For the brave rangers and dedicated staff at Virunga National Park, its protection for current and future generations to appreciate and value is literally a matter of life and death. Even though most of us will never experience the richness of the park, the value of its existence makes these conservation efforts indispensable .
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