Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Virunga is open, ready for business

DR Congo park's iconic terrain, wildlife and famed gorillas await tourism resurgence as violence subsides


ITURI, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Innocent Mburanumwe can talk to gorillas. He crouches low, knees bent, and lets out a deep, guttural grunt. Then, after a moment or two, another one. If they’re feeling particularly vocal, the gorillas talk back.

“Each gorilla has his own personality,” Mburanumwe said. “That one speaks too much, that one plays too much.”

He sighs. 

“I love them all.”

Innocent Mburanumwe, Virunga's southern sector warden.
Elaisha Stokes

For decades, the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo has made international headlines for its armed conflict. While war is part of the history of this region, it’s certainly not the whole story, and Mburanumwe is determined to let the world know it. For many years he’s been habituating the park’s 300-plus gorillas to the presence of humans in the hopes that the tourism industry will one day return to the region.

After many years, Virunga opens this month. And the gorillas are here, waiting.

Virunga National Park was founded in 1925.  It is the continent’s oldest national park, and conservationists often refer to it as Africa’s crown jewel. From its southern tip, the park stretches 300 kilometers north, covering 2 million acres of vast terrain — lava lakes, tropical rainforests, savannahs and wetlands are all found within its borders. There are lions, elephants, hippos and the famed Okapi — a cross between a zebra and a giraffe. But the park’s premiere attraction remains its mountain gorillas. Virunga is home to about half of the world’s remaining population.

“There’s a very old tradition of conservation in this part of Congo,” said Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s director. “Many people have parents or grandparents who were involved in this park. And so conservation trumps politics.”

That hasn’t always been the case.

In 2007, the park made international headlines when corrupt park officials implicated in the illicit charcoal trade gunned seven mountain gorillas down, execution style. The government in Kinshasa was swift to act, arresting those implicated and instating de Merode as director. Conservationist hoped the park could recover its former glory.

In 2012, National Geographic declared Virunga the premiere destination for those seeking adventure, but by March of that year two units from the national army had mutinied, and a new rebel movement known as M23 had taken up arms. These rebels moved into Virunga and it became impossible to trek for gorillas. The park immediately suspended all tourism.

“We’ve struggled to protect the gorillas during times of conflict,” de Merode said. 

Brent Stirton/Getty Images

He has repeatedly negotiated with armed rebel groups to make sure shelling is kept out of the park, often traveling to Kinshasa to facilitate high-level meetings between rebel groups and the Congolese government.

Emmanuel de Merode (center), director of Virunga, stands with park rangers.
Michele Sibiloni/AFP/Getty Images

“Initially, there was a lot of suspicion that we were traitors,” de Merode said. But time and time again, successive rebel leaders have agreed that protecting mountain gorillas is in everyone’s best interest. Gorilla trekking in neighboring Rwanda is estimated to generate $15 million in revenue annually. Money like that could be huge to a region where per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world.

Late last year, M23 declared a truce and laid down its weapons. For those who call the Kivu home, peace finally seems to be on the horizon. Most of the former rebels are now in demobilization camps across Masisi, the district that borders the south of the park. After years of instability, de Merode is pleased to officially declare Virunga open for business.

“We’ve opened Mikeno, the gorilla sector,” de Merode said, “and the volcano will open later this month. Now, we’re just waiting for the tourists.”

From the main road, it’s a 30-minute hike uphill to the first ranger checkpoint. Congolese farmers grow corn and cassava along the way. But relics from the recent past are everywhere — old shells are stashed at the first checkpoint. In all, there are 95 rangers in the southern sector. Their job is to patrol the area and protect the wildlife. Poaching and rebels remain a problem in some parts of the park, so the rangers carry AK47s. It’s a dangerous job. By some estimates, the park has lost more than 100 rangers during the last 20 years of conflict.

Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Mburanumwe is the park’s southern sector warden. He has worked as a ranger for the last 15 years. Working for Virunga was his childhood dream.

“My father was a ranger,” Mburanumwe said. “We saw our father wearing his uniform, carrying his gun. I asked, ‘Why every day are you taking this weapon and going into the forest?’” And he explained, ‘It’s very important to protect these animals. They are important to our livelihood.’ So when I was old enough, I enlisted as a ranger.”

The uniform Innocent Mburanumwe wears with pride.
Elaisha Stokes

Mburanumwe rose through the ranks quickly. By all accounts, he is the foremost expert in the Congo on the mountain gorillas, which, by default, makes him one of the foremost experts in the world. Legend has it that Mburanumwe can identify all 102 of the park’s habituated gorillas on sight.

Mburanumwe briefed a group, recently, on the rules before heading out through the park. Upon entering, the group must remain silent, keep to the path and stay seven meters away from the gorillas at all time. Most importantly, should a silverback decide to charge — don’t run.

Silverbacks are the large adult males of gorilla troops, thus named for the distinctive patch of silver hair that runs down the length of their backside. It is not uncommon for them to reach 450 pounds. They form the center of all social interaction within the family, providing the many females they mate with companionship and protection. This protection extends to foreign visitors, including tourists.

Innocent Mburanumwe (left) and other park officials.
Elaisha Stokes

Protective facemasks are provided, not for the group’s security, but to protect the gorillas from the diseases people carry. Gorillas are the closest living relatives to human beings, after chimps and bonobos, sharing a remarkable 95 percent of DNA with these forest-dwelling creatures.

The forest smells damp, like rotting fruit. Vegetation is thick with bramble and stinging nettles. Aggressive biting ants bring new meaning to the adage, “ants in your pants.” The terrain is steep, the walk is long, and there is a creeping thought that rebels might be waiting just around the next Eucalyptuses tree.

It’s all false. These are the kinds of tropes that keep tourists from coming.

What’s true is that a team of highly trained trackers are monitoring the 102 habituated gorillas at all times, ensuring their safety and security. On this day, a few of the rangers set out ahead of the group to track the gorillas. There were clues along the way. Mburanumwe pointed to a patch of matted leaves with a giant pile of droppings in the middle.

“This is a nest,” he said, lifting a stray hair he believed was from an adult female. “They spent the night here. We are close.”

Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Then, the grunting began. Slowly at first, then with more volume and vigor.

Around a corner was a mother gorilla with a baby clinging firmly to its chest. They looked at the group, uninterested, used to the presence of people. But the presence of wild gorillas evoked an overwhelming air of unpredictability. In the distance, a male beat his chest. Mburanumwe insisted the gorilla’s demonstration was playful.

“Humba is a very good family,” Mburanumwe said. “The silverback is calm. I love him”

The silverback shares the name with the rest of the troop. In total, 16 gorillas make up the Humba family. There were other male juveniles, mothers and babies. They rolled in the grass and lazily munched eucalyptus — all much closer to the group than the suggested seven meters, providing a simultaneously thrilling and unnerving sensation.

A juvenile male wanted to play and grabbed for a camera, but Mburanumwe gently shooed him away with some branches. When one of the members of the party coughed, the juvenile coughed, too, in imitation.

A park ranger observes a young gorilla.
Elaisha Stokes

These creatures are incredibly human like in their manners and interactions. The sense of wonder was broken by a realization that this is a species on the brink. Opportunities like this might not last forever.

Even with the natural wonder of gorillas, park management is not without its difficulties. Virunga continues to struggle to make ends meet. Without tourists, it relies mostly on European funders to pay the mounting bills. These days Mburanumwe spends less time with gorillas and more time on patrol. Rebel activity in the north of the park is jeopardizing the ecosystem, and the charcoal industry that precipitated the murder of the gorillas seven years ago continues to be a problem.

“Last week we lost a ranger to the FDLR rebel group,” Mburanumwe said. “They ambushed us and one of our rangers lost his life. It was sad. That hurts us.”

More recently, oil concessions have been granted within the boundaries of Virunga. Soco International, a British oil company, began aerial exploration of the region, amidst international outcry. Virunga is a UNESCO world heritage site, and as such, is under protection from any mineral or natural resource exploration.

What the park needs now more than ever, Mburanumwe said, is tourists.

“People think Congo is poor,” he said. “But Congo is a rich country. We need only to explore these riches. Our country could develop very quickly. The Congolese people are ready and waiting.”

This is the first in a two-part look at Virunga National Park. The second part, appearing Tuesday, will further examine oil exploration beneath the park.

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Elaisha Stokes’ reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.