In the dense jungle of Virunga National Park, ranger Yaya Mburanumwe swings a sharpened machete to clear a path through the undergrowth. Mburanumwe is leading a group of six people to meet the parks undisputed stars, the mountain gorillas.
In a lush clearing a giant silverback lies on his back, scratching his belly, a couple of youngsters play in the undergrowth, and a baby gorilla rides on his mother’s shoulders. Mburanumwe gently grunts at the silverback, to assure him we are friend not foe.
It’s this experience that the park is hoping to sell to tourists. But despite its incredible natural beauty and diverse animal life, Virunga Park is a hard sell. Conflict and corruption have plagued the region for over two decades. An estimated 5.4 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998 and the park has borne witness to much of the violence.
Militia groups have operated within the park’s boundaries, poachers have decimated gorilla and hippopotamus populations and over 100 park rangers have died defending the park and its animals. By 2012 the fighting had gotten so bad Virunga was officially closed to tourists. Then, late last year, M23, the strongest rebel group in the region was defeated, and this year the administrators re-opened small pockets of the park to tourists.
“This sector of the park is calm,” Mburanumwe tells DW. “But over there, there are armed groups.” ‘Over there’ refers to another sector a mere 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) away, considered too dangerous for tour groups. In fact, most of the park remains closed to tourists right now.
M23 may have been pushed out, but they’re not the only group with interests in the park. Emmanuel De Merode is a Belgian conservationist and the administrator of Virunga. He says the security challenges here include armed groups, but that isn’t the only concern they are busy with.
“You’ve got 4 million people living within a days walk from the park boundaries, one of the highest population densities in Africa,” he explains. “Either we could look at that population as a threat to the future of the park, because they need land, they need resources, and they will go into the park to obtain that. Or we could see them as an opportunity.”
De Merode says that getting the local community involved in park-related tourism is the best way forward. Neighbouring Rwanda brings in around $300 million dollars (218.8 million euros) with its park tourism program, and Virunga offers tourists an even larger treasure chest of natural wonders.
In addition to the mountain gorillas, the park boasts alpine forests, savannah, island landscapes and an active volcano with the largest lava lake in the world. Hippos, lions and the rare okapi roam the two million acre area, which was first established in 1925 as the continent’s first national park.
“From the perspective of a tourist, you could spend two weeks in Virunga,” says De Merode.
For those tourists to come however, the region has to be stable. To be stable, it has to be more prosperous. Despite it’s vast mineral wealth, Congo has not been able to lift most of it’s 65 million people out of poverty, which feeds the cycle of conflict and violence.
To combat this the park recently announced the formation of the ‘Virunga Alliance’ – a team of environmentalists, philanthropists and investors who want to see the park generate revenue for aid economic development. They also want to see this done without harm to the environment. The backbone of this plan? Hydroelectricity.
The park’s high rainfall makes it ideal for hydroelectric plants. The plants are low impact, and have the capacity to generate enough electricity for tens of thousands of households. At a press conference last month, the Alliance announced its plans to increase its existing hydroelectric pilot project. Rural electrification invigorates local economies they say, and they want to focus on funneling electricity primarily to small businesses to enable large scale job creation.
Using tourism for conservation
“We have to move very quickly so we can break the cycle and that means creating a lot of employment, in particular for young men, because it’s young men who are inclined to act violently,” De Merode says. “We need a more viable and more interesting future for them than what war offers.”
The plan is not without its opponents. In a scenario all too common in the mineral soaked nation, disputes over natural resources have challenged the Alliance. Shortly after the Alliance announced its hydroelectricity plans, the UK oil company SOCO International began seismic surveys in the park, the first step in investigating the size of the park’s oil reserves.
Environmentalists are worried. It is easier to extract resources than it is to build a tourism industry from scratch and the mineral business is highly lucrative.
Shortly after De Merode gave DW this interview he was ambushed by an unknown group while driving and shot four times in the chest and legs. De Merode survived the attack, and was airlifted to Nairobi where he is currently recuperating. With so many different groups with interests in the park, it’s been impossible to know who was behind the attack.
De Merode has become a widely known figure in Congo for his work against oil exploration and poaching in the park. In a statement, he asked the public to refrain from speculation until the investigation into the attack is complete. He also reiterated his plans to return to DR Congo, and his work.
This report was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation