Virunga National Park is the oldest and most biologically diverse protected area in Africa. Covering about 3,000 square miles, it’s a vital refuge for endangered gorillas and hundreds of other rare species. But it is also one of the world’s most dangerous conservation projects, as armed conflict has led to the death of more than 180 park rangers in the last 20 years.
Created in 1925, Virunga National Park covers a vast area in the heart of the Albertine Rift Valley in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With its river valleys, volcanoes, lakes, and tropical forests, the park has an almost unrivaled diversity of ecosystems and landscapes.
These habitats provide a home to many rare and endangered species, most famously the critically endangered mountain gorillas who live in Virunga’s volcanic forests, accounting for about one-third of the global population. More than 200 other mammal species live in the park, including okapis, lions, hippos, and forest and savanna elephants, alongside 706 species of birds, 109 recorded reptile species, 78 amphibian species, and 22 species of primates.
Add humans into the mix, however, and things take a darker turn. Armed conflict has plagued the region for decades, and clashes with militia and smugglers have resulted in the deaths of more than 180 park rangers in Virunga over the last 20 years.
Today, some 600 brave rangers risk their lives every day to protect the park, the gorillas, and all the other species that call Virunga home. And while they continue to do their job, the park itself has been closed to tourists since June 2018. The closure was enforced after rebels killed one park ranger and abducted two British tourists. The tourists were later released, but the park was closed until the end of the year.
Whether Virunga will reopen in 2019 remains to be seen. The park is looking to introduce more robust security measures to help combat multiple security threats, including smuggling, illegal charcoal production, poaching, and the continued presence of the Mai Mai militia.