Efforts to Save Virunga Mountain Gorillas Prove challenging for African Park Rangers
According to a new study report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), three out of four African wildlife rangers face life threatening challenges from local communities or other people because of the work they do to protect wildlife.
African wildlife rangers working in the Virunga mountains region, the only habitat left on earth for the critically endangered mountain gorillas have been killed, tortured by armed poachers and militia rebel groups based in eastern DR Congo over the past 4 decades. Similarly the same violence is imposed on mountain gorillas and other wildlife specifically African elephants and Rhinos have been poached and may become extinct if little is done to protect them.
The virunga massifs shared by Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo and the separate Bwindi impenetrable forest national park are the only places where the world’s last population of 880 mountain gorillas live. Mountain gorillas are among the most delightful apes sought after by most travelers but also among the most threatened apes though their numbers have been steadily increasing in the last 2 decades due to strong conservation within the gorilla range states.
However, Rwanda and Uganda have been relatively safe and secure than the virunga national park in eastern DR Congo. Virunga National Park which covers 8700 sq km comprising of tropical montane forests, snow capped Mt. Rwenzori, flood plains, dormant and active volcanoes, wetlands and savannahs.
Virunga national park is Africa’s oldest national park gazzetted in 1925 and later in 1979 became a UNESCO world heritage site. Due to civil wars that intensified in the 1980’s, the parks status was changed to a world heritage site in danger. Despite its high profile status, civil wars and armed poachers have led to death of 150 wildlife rangers since 2004 in virunga national park alone.
This calls for serious equipment and training of wildlife rangers in virunga national park so as to counteract the armed poachers. Note, however, the IUCN’s International Ranger Federation and the Thin Green Line Foundation intervened to help families of the deceased rangers with funds got from donations which brought back happiness from the long standing grief of rangers dying on duty.
Poaching and civil wars have affected the wildlife population of Virunga national park including gorillas as well as the economy and life of local communities hence investing in equipping and training of wildlife rangers is worth a step to save life.
Virunga national park being one of the wildlife rich zones in Africa is also surrounded by dense human population estimated to be 4 million people. Some of the people live in poverty and are subjected to depend on wildlife resources for survival.
Emmanuel de Merode the director of virunga national park has been at the core of fighting wildlife poaching as well as aiming at improving the wellbeing of the local communities. Merode raveled that conservation alone cannot save virunga national park minus an economic model that meets the needs of the population.
Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner which brought $ 1.7 million in 2014, Merode’s focus was is create jobs for the people, electrify the region, build health centers and as well as clean water supply. Unless the issue of poverty is addressed, people will continue to poach, encroach on the park for survival. This is the same thing for long term civil conflicts in eastern DR Congo.
The world wide fund for nature (WWF) recently put it clear that African wildlife rangers especially those in virunga not only lack weaponry but also basic things such as clean water and cold weather gears. Therefore in addition to equipping and training rangers, wildlife rangers need better working conditions and recognition to enable them executes their work diligently.
Apparently, a number of supporting initiatives such as fitting of rainwater harvesting tanks, growing of unpalatable tea along the park boundaries to reduce human conflict with gorillas wandering off into people’s crop fields and helping women to grow vegetables such as mushrooms and tomatoes. All help people help people to increase their food security and icome hence improving their wellbeing.
Rangers have also been supported by expanding patrol posts and equipping them with modern communication and tracking systems such as GPS, surveillance cameras, guns and walk tokis which improved patrols hence reducing poaching of gorillas and other wildlife.
Although virunga national park has been faced with civil wars in the past 4 decades, conservation efforts recently have scaled up since 2008 despite some of the Mai Mai rebel attacks in 2010 and 2014 and the threat of oil exploration.
Conservation campaigns like the virunga documentary have increased awareness. In 2015 Virunga National Park was selected amongst best and safe destinations by lonely planet because the security situation has increased as well as tourists going for gorilla tracking and other activities like Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira active volcano climbing.
Virunga national park rangers together with the Congolese institute for wildlife conservation regained control of the park and tourists can safely visit the park for gorilla trekking safaris. 5 gorilla families have been habituated for tourists; there is strict monitoring of gorillas daily hence gorilla tourism is the new hope to contribute to poverty alleviation of local communities.
Virunga National Park’s success is due to the dedicated wildlife rangers; however it has not been the rangers alone, the work of other partner organizations and local communities together is paramount.