6 Virunga Park Staffers Killed in Ambush

Over the last 20 years, 175 rangers have been killed in Virunga National Park. LMspencer/Shutterstock

Five rangers and a staff driver for Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were killed in an ambush April 9. A sixth ranger was injured in the ambush, but he is recovering.

The attack, carried out in the park's central region, was the deadliest in Virunga's history, and brings the park's death toll for the year to seven and to 175 in the past 20 years.

The park is known for its population of critically endangered mountain gorillas, among other endangered species.

"We are profoundly saddened by the loss of our colleagues [on April 9]," Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode said in a statement. "Virunga has lost some extraordinarily brave rangers who were deeply committed to working in service of their communities."

Conflict jungle

A gorilla sits in a field in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo
Virunga National Park's gorilla population is about 1,000. Janos Rautonen/Shutterstock

Working in the park, which covers some 3,011 miles (7,800 square kilometers) is no easy task. Rangers, recruited from villages that surround the park, face many different threats as they strive to keep the animals in the park safe. Rebel groups, poachers, bandits and the "self-defense" militia Mai-Mai all routinely enter the park to claim territory or animals. The charcoal industry also cuts down trees in the park for raw materials.

Park officials identified Mai-Mai members as responsible for the most recent attack. The group has killed rangers in the past, including five in August 2017, and is suspected of killing mountain gorillas as well.

"This is not an easy profession. Losing your friends and colleagues is very painful. But we chose to do this, and we know the risks," Innocent Mburanumwe, the park's deputy director told The Guardian.

Most rangers are in their 20s, The Guardian reports, and have spouses and a number of children. Of the park employees killed April 9, the youngest was 22. The driver was the oldest at 30.

Even the park's own director was attacked in 2014.

"Our rangers are targeted frequently due to their difficult work in protecting the park and its many valuable resources," he wrote in 2014. "They continue to face such risks to restore peace and the rule of law to the area and the people in their care."

The park was created in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium, with the intention of protecting mountain gorillas.

Risks continue to grow

A fully equipped ranger heads goes on duty inside the Virunga National Park
An unidentified Virunga National Park ranger goes on duty. Training and equipment for rangers improved after 2007. LMspencer/Shutterstock

Risks to the park increase as instability in the DRC also grows. Observers worry that the country is on the brink of collapsing into violence reminiscent of the civil war that ravaged the country from 1997 to 2003. During that time, the gorilla population in the park had fallen to around 300 individuals. It has increased to more than 1,000 today.

In 2007, the park's fortunes improved, thanks to partnerships between private donors, the European Union, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Congolese wildlife service. De Merode was installed as the director of the park in 2008 and enacted a number of reforms. Training improved, as did the rangers' access to better equipment. Rangers are paid $250 a month, a sizable amount of money in the region. Whatever intruders rangers are able to capture are held in a detention block located at the park's headquarters before they're transferred to local authorities.

Still, conflicts between Congolese and Rwandan forces threaten the park, and, in the north, an Islamist militia has clashed with rangers and U.N. peacekeepers. This has all happened just in the past few months.

But the park represents a great deal to the region. It stands for economic development — de Merode has worked to improve the park's relations with surrounding villages, including generating electricity and improving roads — but also a sense of national pride in protecting the diversity of this place and the creatures that live there.

David Nezehose, the 29-year-old leader of the rangers' dog team told The Guardian, "I grew up and live next door to the park so I know its importance. My grandfather was a guide in the park 40 years ago. I wanted to protect the gorillas who are our neighbors."