The job of a Virunga ranger is one of the most dangerous in conservation. Comprising over 7,800 square kilometres of forests, savannahs, swamps and peaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the park poses significant challenges to those tasked with its protection. Though one of the most naturally rich protected areas in the world, it is situated in one of its poorest regions. Existing between these extremes of economic poverty and natural wealth, the park is an easy target for those looking to make vast personal profits. Poaching has become rampant, as has the clearing of protected rare forests for charcoal. This exploitation leads to deadly conflicts and threatens not just local populations, but the very existence of the park. Over 150 rangers have laid down their lives in the line of duty over the past ten years, all in the name of protecting this beautiful natural area.
Tragically, the situation in Virunga is not exceptional; wildlife and forest crime is rife within many of the world’s most spectacular protected areas. It saddens me greatly to learn that wildlife crime, which I have dedicated most of my life to fighting, has grown into one of the largest transnational organized criminal activities. Thanks to the huge amount of money behind the demand for charcoal, bush-meat and rare furs, the rangers face a rapidly increasing level of violence and drastic intensification of firepower. The impact of wildlife crime cannot be overstated. The illegal exploitation of natural resources has led to the critical endangering of thousands of species around the world through poaching and the destruction of delicate and vital ecosystems. It also has a profound impact on human populations, strengthening the power and influence of armed groups, undermining the rule of law, threatening national security and locking local communities into cycles of instability.
Yet, despite such challenges, I remain optimistic for the future. In the case of Virunga, I believe the park can play a key role in providing economic growth in the region. The national park exists in a precarious balance between the demands of development – in a region lacking even basic infrastructure – and conservation. Its protected status prevents access to 1.2 million acres of fertile land, which, if farmed, would offer more than $1 billion to local people. This reveals the tensions at play, which manifest themselves in illegal and violent activity perpetrated by militias looking for financial or political gain. For the park to survive, an economic model that meets the needs of the population must be put into place, as ultimately, it is the people that live around the park who suffer most. This is where the park’s sustainable development initiative, the Virunga Alliance, comes into play. By utilising the park’s natural resources in an ecologically responsible way, it aims to attract viable industries that are invested in its on-going protection.
In an area as poor as eastern Congo, the largest expense is energy. So the Virunga Alliance aims to tackle energy poverty by providing a safe and cheap alternative; hydropower. Constructing low impact hydro plants in the park is working to supply reliable and affordable electricity to four million people living near its borders. The plants offer an alternative to the current fuels used by local people and businesses: kerosene, which is costly; and charcoal, which is often poached illegally from within the park.
The pilot 400 kilowatt plant near Mutwanga brought affordable electricity to 3,600 homes and the launch of the 13.6 megawatt Matebe plant in December 2015 has enabled the park to begin delivery of free electricity to schools and hospitals and cheap energy to local homes and businesses. It is estimated that Matebe could bring up to 12,000 sustainable jobs for people in and around the hard-hit region of Rutshuru, highly significant in a country with an 80 per cent unemployment rate.
Many young men see their only way out of poverty as joining a militia group, thus feeding instability in the region and illegal poaching within the park’s boundaries. The Virunga Alliance has been undertaking extensive work to help improve infrastructure to encourage investment and new business development, so helping to create more jobs for local people. The hydro facility at Mutwanga powers a local soap factory that brought 400 jobs to the community, and offers increased income to the 8,000 farmers who provide it with sustainably grown palm oil. It is hoped that 60,000 new jobs will be created as a result of similar investment in agro-business. Tourism is another major driver for positive change in the region, and completing the park’s Mikeno Lodge has also brought jobs and new infrastructure.
As a conservationist, my job is to protect the park and its huge wealth of flora and fauna. Yet my role in Virunga has shown me that effective conservation also means taking into account the needs of local communities. Only when they begin to see the park as an asset, rather than a restriction, will we be able to ensure its survival. The battle to protect Virunga, and many other protected areas like it, cannot be left to the hard work of park rangers alone.
A concerted, global effort is needed to tackle the causes of wildlife crime in national parks. The Virunga Alliance is pushing for real social and economic change in eastern Congo – the only way to help bring peace and prosperity, and to build a safer future for local people and park rangers alike.