The Documentary That Could Save Africa’s Oldest National Park

©. Courtesy of Netflix. Ranger Andre Bauma with Ndakasi, one of the resident Mountain Gorillas of Virunga National Park.

Bribery, shoot-outs, smuggling, secret cameras, endangered baby gorillas, a law-breaking multinational corporation, and heroes willing to die for their cause. All set in one of the most breathtaking natural landscapes in the world, which also happens to be Africa’s oldest national park.

The documentary “Virunga” tells the story of the park rangers who risk their lives protecting the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was established in 1925. The park is threatened by poachers, militant groups, and perhaps most disturbingly—a multinational oil company that’s been exploring for oil within the park’s borders.

The documentary debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, has a distribution deal with Netflix, and is nominated for an Oscar. But more importantly, the film is poised to have a big impact on the future of one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Central to the film are Mountain Gorillas, a critically endangered species with many of its last remaining members calling the park home.

“This was always about more than a film," said director Orlando Von Einsiedel. "This was always about trying to create a tool that could be used to protect the Virunga National Park.” He spent two years working on the documentary, including a year living in the park with the rangers.

Since the film’s release, tourism and donations to the park are up. According to park director Emmanuel de Merode, who is a central character in the documentary, donations made directly to the park are on track to triple compared to the previous year. “It's very fortunate because we lost a lot of money during the war that ended a year ago, and were really struggling to meet the basic costs of supporting the rangers through to the end of this year,” he told TreeHugger in an email.

“Virunga” documentary poster

© “Virunga” directed by Orlando Von Einsiedel. Courtesy of Netflix.

Oil extraction is potentially the biggest threat to the park, and to the communities that live within it. The film shines an unflattering light on SOCO International, a British oil company that has been granted an exploration concession that overlaps with part of the park. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and drilling within its boundaries would be illegal. Von Einsiedel told TreeHugger he hopes the film will bring international attention to the issue, and pressure the company to stop.

Von Einsiedel said that the park rangers, civil society groups and the local fishing communities have been concerned about SOCO for some time, and about the destruction an oil discovery would bring. But anyone who speaks out against oil receives threatening messages. This is bad news for park rangers, who already risk their lives to stop poachers. Emmanuel de Merode himself was shot around the time of the film’s release, and luckily has recovered. The film is a way to magnify the work they have already done, and it certainly got noticed.

SOCO for its part has denied wrong doing. On June 11, SOCO and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) announced that SOCO would “commit not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.” The statement went on to say that “the conclusion of this phase of work will give the DRC government vital information it will need in deciding how to proceed in Virunga National Park.”

This announcement feels like a win—but it also leaves a lot open for interpretation. “When we actually started to look at it in the cold light of day, we realized that it’s a really meaningless announcement,” said Von Einsiedel. “SOCO was always going to halt their operations around that period, because they’d done years of explorations, and they need to go and analyze their results.”

Despite the promise to do no further explorations in the park, SOCO has not withdrawn its personnel from the area. The SOCO Communications Team told TreeHugger in an email that “SOCO does not intend to carry out further explorations in the DRC outside Virunga National Park.” They did not say exactly how many people are still employed by SOCO in the DRC, but said “SOCO's operations have now ceased in the DRC, the number of employees has been reduced down to only a small number of head office staff in Kinshasa.”

The Communications Team also said that SOCO is also nearly finished with its social investment programs in the area, such as improving roads, telecommunications and installing solar-powered water purification systems. “Completion is imminent pending a final site visit and handover of the facilities to the local communities,” they said.

Yet the rangers on the ground are concerned about the company’s continued presence in the park. “They have held onto the concession and made it clear that they intend to use that part of their concession that is in the park,” said De Merode. “So we have every reason to remain concerned and extremely vigilant.” A promise to stop explorations is not the same as a promise to never drill in the future. “There is no guarantee from the company that they might not come back at a later stage when they feel that the international pressure on them has diminished,” said De Merode.

“On the ground, anyone who speaks out against oil still receives death threats,” said Von Einsiedel.

SOCO deputy CEO Roger Cagle has been quoted suggesting that the world heritage boundaries could be re-drawn to permit drilling, adding there have been “many other places where they have accommodated things in world heritage sites by redrawing boundaries.”

One might hope that exploratory concessions wouldn’t be drawn to include areas that should be protected, but other oil companies in a similar position have handled things better. A concession granted to Total also overlapped with a northern part of Virunga National Park. In April of 2012, the company pledged to never operate within the park, and according to Von Einsiedel have kept their word. “Other oil companies have acted responsibly, no matter how the concessions are drawn.”

Virunga National Park

© A herd of buffalo in Virunga Nation Park. Courtesy of Netflix.

The fight to keep oil drilling out of the park may not be over, but the bid for an Oscar is helping to keep international attention focused on the situation in Eastern Congo.

The documentary is also encouraging people to visit the park. “The film probably isn't a typical pitch for promoting a tourism destination, but we get a lot of enquiries from people who are inspired by Virunga's story and who want to experience the reality of our life in Virunga,” said De Merode.

De Merode said tourism to the park helps in a great many ways. In addition to helping conserve nature, it contributes to a sustainable local economy. “The very best protection we can offer the mountain gorillas in the long term is by having the local communities on our side,” he said. “Tourism is also a key part of relaunching the post-conflict economy, which is essential for bringing peace to the region.”

Through an initiative called the Virunga Alliance, tourism is one of four aspects of sustainable development being proposed in the region, along with sustainably energy, fisheries and agriculture. By helping create sustainable, long-term job prospects, the Virunga Alliance hopes to reduce the appeal of recruiters for militant groups. While donations directly to the park usually support the immediate needs of the rangers and the animals they care for, the larger institutional donors typically support these bigger projects.

“Virunga” the documentary and its creators are supporting Virunga the park in another particularly selfless way: they’ve given the rights of the film back to the park.

“We always felt that we made a film about outsiders taking stuff from Congo, but we couldn’t do that ourselves,” said Von Einsiedel. Giving the rights to the film means that all of the money it has earned from the Netflix distribution deal and any future proceeds will go back to the national park.

De Merode told me that the filmmaker always planned for the documentary to be a gift for the park and its rangers, which is why they worked so well together during some very difficult moments in Virunga. “As it happens, the film and Netflix's incredible contribution in bringing our efforts to the world's attention, are probably the best chance we have at saving the park and bringing peace to the area around the park.”

Read more of our interview with Orlando Von Einsiedel here.