The first time I began to consider development work a career was my freshman year of college when I took a class called “Nongovernmental Organizations and Development in Poor Countries,” an upper division class full of grad students who were way out of my league. I loved the class and I spent more time and attention than I think I ever have on a paper looking at the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the involvement of the US in the exploitation of Congo’s rich mineral resources, and the lack of interest in the situation from the international media. That same year a family of gorillas was murdered in Virunga National Park in Eastern Congo as groups trading in charcoal hoped to wipe out the gorillas in the park to make the area no longer worth protecting.
Last week we were in Rwanda visiting friends and we stayed on the shores of Lake Kivu, right at the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo – inches and an exorbitant visa fee from the place that I had spent so much time studying and thinking about. Also last week, the Head Warden of Virunga, Emmanuel de Mérode, was ambushed and shot by three rebels in the park. Fortunately he is now in stable condition and recovering, but as we drove down to the lake shore we were stunned into silence by the incredible view beyond Goma of Mt. Nyiragongo, glowing from the fire of the world’s largest lava lake within its crater. I couldn’t help but think of the enormous risks that Mr. de Mérode and his fellow rangers take to protect the first park in Africa, the most bio-diverse park in Africa, the only place where you can see all three great apes that exist in Africa, and the home of 25% of the worlds remaining population of mountain gorillas.
The next day we drove up a nearby hill to get a better look (and some photos) and stood in awe of the giant volcano looming over the city and its bright glow illuminating the sky.
Finally, last week also marked the release of the film Virunga at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film focuses on the threats to the park from rebel group M23 and the UK based company SOCO International as they make plans to drill for oil. While I haven’t seen the full film the trailer is incredibly moving, and although SOCO has denied allegation made in the film it seems that the filmakers are onto something important. Check out a review here and the official website here.
We weren’t able to go gorilla tracking while in Rwanda, but my hope is that one day we will be able to see the gorillas in Congo and provide our tourist dollars as support to the amazing rangers who have given their all to preserve the peace and beauty of Virunga National Park and all the animals and people that call the place home.
If you’re interested in joining the campaign against oil drilling in Virunga or supporting the work of the rangers that protect the park and the gorillas within, check out the WWF campaign here.