One Man's Battle to Save Africa's Oldest National Park / Times Magazine
From the co-pilot's seat of Emmanuel de Merode's tiny Cessna, the Virunga National Park in eastern Congo looks ravishing: a vast expanse of lush green savannah dissected by mountain ridges and winding brown rivers.
To the south, conical volcanoes soar skywards, their forested flanks the home of one third of the world’s 1,000-odd mountain gorillas. From one, Nyiragongo, clouds of white vapour rise from the great lava lake bubbling and spurting deep in its crater. To the east, straddling the park’s border with Uganda, is one of Africa’s Great Lakes – Edward. Far to the north, shrouded in mist, are the Rwenzori mountains with their snow-capped peaks and glaciers.
But Virunga is no Eden. For two decades it has been the epicentre of successive conflicts that sucked in Congo’s neighbours, caused six million deaths and were collectively dubbed “Africa’s World War”. Much of the park’s 3,000 sq miles is still infested with armed militias. De Merode, the 47-year-old Belgian prince who is Virunga’s director, has to be careful where he flies lest they fire at his plane with their AK47s. Somewhat disconcertingly, he draws my attention to a bullet hole in the wing.
Those militias – a dozen main groups and numerous satellites – are still fighting what he calls a “low-level war”. And they still threaten the future of Virunga, a Unesco World Heritage Site that is Africa’s oldest national park and boasts more species of mammals, birds and reptiles than anywhere else on earth.
They control an illegal charcoal trade worth around $35 million (£27 million) a year that is destroying Virunga’s forests, and an illegal fishing industry on Lake Edward worth $38 million (£29 million) a year. They have annexed a quarter of the park for illegal cultivation, killed scores of its rangers and slaughtered its wildlife.
But de Merode’s mild, self-eacing exterior masks a steely will, and a courage that borders on the reckless. He is also a visionary. To save Virunga he is pursuing what is probably the biggest infrastructure project ever undertaken in eastern Congo, and almost certainly the world’s most audacious conservation scheme – an integral part of which appears before us as we fly across the park’s western boundary.
It is a surreal sight amid the surrounding wilderness: an entire mountain in an advanced state of dismantlement and reassembly. The top has been lopped o to create an airstrip. A river has been diverted into a two-mile canal carved through an upper reach. All manner of roads and earthworks scar the mountain’s lower levels. Dozens of construction vehicles crawl across those raw red gashes. A dormitory village has been erected to house the 900-strong workforce.
This will soon be the 14.6-megawatt Luviro hydroelectric plant, one of eight such plants that de Merode intends to construct around Virunga’s borders by 2025. Those plants will cost at least $160 million and generate 105 megawatts. They will, he hopes, undercut the militias and bring stability to one of the world’s most volatile regions by fuelling an alternative, legal and sustainable economy for Virunga’s four million neighbours – some of the poorest and, literally, most powerless people on earth.
His ambition is staggering. For this plant alone he has raised $22 million, plus $12 million for a 250-mile network to distribute its electricity to three towns on Virunga’s border. He has shipped 2 huge custom-made turbines and 45-tonne generators from France to Mombasa, and from China 200 2-tonne lengths of steel pipe, thousands of pylons and dozens of bulldozers, diggers, graders and dump trucks. Hundreds of articulated lorries have then ferried all that hardware 1,800 miles across Africa, the last 25 on a specially constructed road through militia-controlled territory where the convoys require armed protection.
The plant also requires protection. The purpose of de Merode’s visit is to deliver more rifles and ammunition to its 15-strong garrison. “You can’t sleep at night, because you have teams on the ground that haven’t signed up for war,” he says.
All this is, of course, an enormous gamble in a land endlessly beset by conflict, corruption, greed and lawlessness. I ask if de Merode ever feels daunted. “Most days,” he says, laughing. But it would be rash to bet against him. Since becoming Virunga’s director in 2008 he has faced down two all-out assaults on the park’s hilltop headquarters by guerrilla armies, negotiated face to face with infamous warlords, narrowly survived an assassination attempt and waged a global campaign to prevent a rapacious British oil company from drilling in Virunga. Today he cannot leave those headquarters at Rumangabo without armed guards.
“You have a choice,” he tells me. “One is to address the situation in eastern Congo, and the other is not to. They’re both pretty scary. The second is much more so but, if you choose to do something about it and want to be effective, you have to take enormous risks.”
De Merode has always been single-minded. Born in Tunisia to parents who worked for the United Nations, he was raised in Kenya where, aged 12, he developed a love for the wild after spending a week in the bush with George Adamson and his lions.
At 13 he was sent to Downside public school in Somerset. Missing Kenya’s wide open spaces, he would run away to sleep in fields or climb in Cheddar Gorge.
After graduating from Durham, he spurned the family château and lived far from civilisation for several years in Congo’s Garamba National Park and Gabon – fighting malaria as he researched a PhD on the bushmeat trade, sought unsuccessfully to save the world’s last wild northern white rhinos, and tested whether western lowland gorillas could be habituated to humans. They could not: whenever he got too close they would charge, screaming, right up to his face. He was so isolated that he did not hear of the 9/11 terrorist attacks for three months.
But he dreamt of Virunga. He had been reared on tales of the fabled park. “That was the holy grail for me. It was the most spectacular park in the world,” he says, as monkeys scamper across the glorified tent in which he lives at Rumangabo.
Eventually he flew to Kampala, bought a motorbike and rode across Uganda to Virunga’s war-torn northern sector, which was at that time occupied by a rebel group called Le Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD). He oered to help the beleaguered warden, raised money abroad and somehow persuaded Mbusa Nyamwisi, the RCD’s leader, to let him reestablish a ranger presence in the park to protect the wildlife.
Then, in 2007, nine of Virunga’s priceless gorillas including Senkwekwe, a 500lb silverback, were slaughtered. A rebel group appeared to have killed them with the complicity of Virunga’s chief warden, Honore Mashagiro; they wanted the forest for charcoal. There was international outrage. Mashagiro was arrested. Congo’s government gave de Merode his job – a bold move because he was a citizen of the country’s former colonial power. But he inherited a park in a shambles. “It was terrible. One thousand rangers had not been paid for years, and many had got involved in destroying the park for survival,” he says.
Worse, a new war erupted a month after he was sworn in. Rumangabo was caught in sustained crossfire between the Congolese army and yet another rebel group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). The rangers and their families fled to a displacement camp in Goma, a city south of Virunga. The gorillas were left to the CNDP’s mercy. “It was hell,” says de Merode.
In desperation, he crossed the front line to negotiate with Laurent Nkunda, the CNDP warlord who stood accused of multiple war crimes. “It scared the shit out of me,” he admits, but he nevertheless demanded that his rangers – armed but neutral – be allowed to return to guard the gorillas. Astonishingly, Nkunda agreed. The gorillas were saved.
After the CNDP rebellion ended in 2009, de Merode began rebuilding his ranger force, dismissing hundreds of old or venal members, raising the pay of the rest from $5 to $200 a month and importing former Belgian commandos as trainers. But it remained a perilous job, and more than 160 have been killed during his directorship.
In 2012 another rebel group, M23, stormed Rumangabo as it advanced on Goma. This time de Merode and his rangers refused to leave, sheltering from machine-gun fire and artillery bombardments in the wine cellar of the luxury tourist lodge, Mikeno, which they had opened just four months earlier. De Merode explained that he was obliged by international law to protect the park and its gorillas, and M23 accepted that. “It was an amazing moment in conservation,” he says.
More than 160 park rangers have been killed during his directorship Virunga suffered another incursion, too. Soco International, a British oil company based in London’s Mayfair, arrived to conduct seismic tests in Lake Edward – the latest of many foreign entities lured to Congo by its natural riches. It had a Congolese government licence and argued that it would promote stability by creating jobs and prosperity in a region where there were none.
De Merode and an array of local and international NGOs were appalled. They insisted that oil exploration in Virunga was an environmental hazard explicitly banned by both Congolese law and the World Heritage Convention. They argued that allowing a foreign oil company to flout this law would wreck the fragile peace that had prevailed since the M23 rebellion because every armed group would want a share of the proceeds. It would also encourage every villager living on Virunga’s borders to believe they were entitled to farm, hunt or make charcoal there.
De Merode mounted an international campaign to thwart Soco that revolved around a feature-length documentary, Virunga, which was based on a four-year investigation of the company’s alleged transgressions. It recorded the brutal harassment of Soco’s opponents, and secretly filmed Soco employees seeking to bribe rangers and boasting of paying armed militias for safe passage. Soco denied the charges.
The documentary was endorsed by Leonardo DiCaprio, bought by Netflix and nominated for an Oscar. It had a huge impact. Under intense international pressure, and with high-profile shareholders disinvesting, Soco finally withdrew from the park – even though the results of its seismic testing were said to be promising.
De Merode had by that stage challenged many vested interests and made many enemies. On April 15, 2014, he was returning alone from Goma to Rumangabo when his Land Rover was ambushed by gunmen on a quiet stretch of road flanked by dense vegetation. He was shot in the chest and abdomen but managed to return fire, scattering his assailants. After emergency surgery in Goma he was airlifted to Nairobi, but returned to work within three months.
An official investigation drifts on. De Merode refuses to say who he believes was responsible. He never considered quitting, he adds – “not even when I was on the operating table, because this is what I do. That eventual outcome of losing your life is something I accepted when I started.”
A decade after becoming Virunga’s director, de Merode and his small but devoted team can claim substantial progress. He heads a well-equipped, highly motivated force of 600 rangers backed by six aircraft, a rapid reaction force, intelligence operation, canine unit and 24-hour operations room that he calls “the Pentagon”. His rangers are, he says, “the most highly trained, highly disciplined security personnel you will find in eastern Congo”.
The park’s southern sector, containing the gorillas and volcanoes, has been reopened. Ten thousand tourists will visit this year – up from 6,000 last and none in 2013, although they must still be escorted everywhere by armed rangers. Gorilla numbers are edging up, those of elephants have stabilised, and lions are returning. A hippopotamus population of 27,000 in the Eighties crashed to just 350 by 2005, but has now recovered to 2,500.
Virunga, its financial viability restored, has raised roughly $32 million in loans and grants this year, plus $1 million that de Merode generated by running the London Marathon, and expects to raise $50 million next. De Merode has enlisted the support of big institutional donors such as the European Union and Britain’s Commonwealth Development Corporation, as well as local business leaders and civic society. “We’ve a way to go, but there’s a big light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
But the progress has come at a cost, to himself as well as his rangers. He has lived a lonely, perilous life, either at Virunga or trailing around the world in search of funds, far from his wife, the paleontologist Louise Leakey, and two young daughters in Nairobi. “At a personal level it’s been catastrophic,” he says, but quickly adds, “I do feel that for real change to happen there’s a price to pay … We have to live with that.”
The militias – effectively armed criminal gangs – still threaten 80 per cent of the park. In August, they killed four rangers in a firefight following a crackdown on illegal fishing. The rangers mount two or three operations a month, and killed around 40 rebels last year alone, but de Merode acknowledges that they cannot defeat the militias by themselves. He also spurns the conventional remedy of trying to co-opt the park’s impoverished neighbours by building them a few schools and hospitals. “That’s just bullshit. People haven’t got their heads round the scale of the problem.”
He contends that Belgium’s King Albert robbed those subsistence farmers of two million acres of hugely fertile land when he created Virunga in 1925, causing the deep resentment that the militias exploit today. “Enormous benefit was given to the whole of humanity, but the price is being paid by the local people who are among the poorest on earth,” he says. “You have an enormous case of social injustice … Local people are extremely hostile. Many of them are desperate, with no livelihood, no income and nowhere to go.”
He argues that Virunga must become an agent of prosperity, not poverty. It must undercut the plunderers by providing on a grand scale. It must use its abundant rivers to develop a whole new economy based on the provision of electricity – the essential ingredient for any sort of progress – in a region that presently has none.
De Merode had been fascinated by hydroelectricity ever since his parents took him, aged seven, to visit friends in remote northern Kenya who used a tiny generator to coax free power from a waterfall. In 2010 he launched a small, EU-funded pilot scheme in the northern village of Mutwanga that was supposed to produce 400 kilowatts of electricity. It actually generates half that amount because the Butahu river is too small, but it does power the hospital, street lighting, several hundred homes and small businesses, plus a new palm-oil soap factory that employs 200 villagers.
Despite Mutwanga’s shortcomings, de Merode subsequently persuaded Howard Buffett, the billionaire American philanthropist, to invest $20 million in a 13.4-megawatt plant at Matebe, on Virunga’s southeastern border, in the midst of the M23 war. “It was a huge leap of faith,” he says, adding: “We couldn’t have done this without Howard Buffett.”
Matebe was built in two years flat and opened in 2015 by President Joseph Kabila. De Merode took me to see it one morning, skipping a lunch in Goma with Princess Caroline of Monaco.
It is an astonishing place – an oasis of order and calm amid the dirt and disorder of eastern Congo. The corralled waters of the Rutshuru river drive three German-built turbines, which already provide cheap power to 4,000 households, 200 millers, welders, hairdressers, ice-makers and other small enterprises, schools, hospitals and a business centre for training aspirant Congolese entrepreneurs that would look at home in California.
It could soon be powering much of Goma – a city of 1.2 million people whose state electricity supply is woefully inadequate. A consortium of business leaders has already pre-purchased $2 million of electricity to fund 40 miles of power lines to Goma.
But electricity alone is not enough. Virunga has also begun giving grants to small businesses that could never get bank loans to expand. They make repayments through small premiums on their electricity bills, which are half the cost of the diesel generators they used before. Those repayments match their business activity, so they pay less when times are hard and more when they are good. No collateral is required. “Before they had no possibility of growing because they had no access to capital,” de Merode explains.
De Merode’s ambition is boundless. He hopes the eight planned plants will bring electricity to one million households and small businesses, and create 100,000 jobs in a region where formal employment is presently negligible, with each wage-earner supporting seven dependents.
Pie in the sky? Possibly, but the portents are promising. I visited the dirt-poor village of Kako, where women carry jerrycans of water on their heads, men sell petrol from plastic bottles and ragged, barefooted children play football with balls of bundled-up plastic bags. Its dirt tracks, mud huts and rudimentary vendors’ stalls are now dissected by the incongruously modern sight of pylons and power lines bringing electricity from Matebe.
Muhindo Mukanda, 45, stood in a brand new corrugated iron shed and explained how he had moved his milling and welding business from a village 30 miles away after Kako got electricity, now paid half what he did for diesel, employs six people and has applied for a $3,000 loan for new machinery. “Electricity has given me ideas,” he grinned.
Mumbere Matofali, 38, moved his humble metalworking shop from Goma for the same reason and now employs four people. “Electricity has changed my life,” he declared. Halima Salima, 20, was happy that she no longer has to walk two miles to charge her phone. Katungu Tasakane, 35, said the street lighting meant she no longer had to hurry home at nightfall in a region known as the world’s rape capital. “We all feel safer than before,” her friends added.
Sitting in the shade of a tree, Kambale Ngabo, a village chief, told me, “Electricity has brought development. We have seen people bringing businesses in. It’s made people wiser than they were before. The way they see the park is changing.”
My final night in Virunga I spent at Kibumba, a new tourist lodge powered by Matebe that nestles between the park’s volcanoes. After breakfast, as we prepared to leave, the staff emerged to serenade de Merode. “Thank you, Papa de Merode. Thank you for giving us light. Thank you for bringing us jobs. Thank you for all your work.”
The innately modest subject of their adoration squirmed with embarrassment