Virunga National Park, Africa’s largest national park, has experienced more violence this year than in the last decade, National Geographic reports. The park, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has had 16 rangers killed in the last year. The Guardian says this April also saw the most deadly single incident in Virunga, where six people were ambushed. Virunga has 731 park rangers protecting the area, which is rich with natural resources. It is also famous for being home to the critically endangered Mountain Gorilla, whose numbers are currently sitting at just over 1000. The natural resources in the park have extremely high value, and National Geographic estimates that they were worth over $170 million in 2017. Journalist Justin Hall says this money is not just of interest to militia groups, but companies like SOCO International, and the DRC’s government. This alluring value has caused the increase in violence. Because of this conflict, The Guardian says Virunga will be closed to the public until 2019, while a security review takes place.
Park Director Emmanuel de Merode told National Geographic: “Virunga is an extreme case of what’s happening with many of Africa’s parks and natural reserves. These are often areas incredibly rich in wildlife resources, and they have financial value, which invariably creates conflict over access to those resources.” This means Merode has had to give the park rangers law enforcement training and body armour.
An approach of interest is to devalue the resources in the park, so extreme measures are no longer taken to retrieve them. This is the goal of the Virunga Alliance, who are committed to using the park’s revenue for sustainable projects. For example, to deter people from exploiting Virunga Park for coal, the Virunga Alliance funded the building of hydroelectric dams, which sustainably power not only the park itself, but surrounding schools, hospitals, and thousands of homes. Merode also says the park will be working closely with the surrounding community in an attempt to influence the development of a greener economy that will benefit the DRC, rather than a negative one that is often drawn into the black market.
Virunga, established 93 years ago, is Africa’s oldest national park. It is also Africa’s largest protected area, covering over 7,500 square kilometres of land. Due to the increase in violence, the Park has had to employ 501 more park rangers since 2011, and is continually investing in developing their training.
It will be interesting to see what Merode and the park decide to do during this security review. It is unfortunate that tourists cannot continue to visit Virunga, as their financial contributions help fund the Virunga Alliance’s sustainable goals. However, if nothing had been done, it would only be a matter of time until the violence deterred them anyway.