Armed men have killed at least six rangers and wounded several others in an ambush in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Virunga national park. This park is a sanctuary for endangered mountain gorillas. Staff working in the park have often come under attack. Judith Verweijen and Esther Marijnen – experts on armed mobilisation and conservation in the DRC – explain why this happens and what must be done to protect them better.
Why is Virunga national park so vital for conservation?
Virunga national park is one of Africa’s most biodiverse protected areas and is home to one third of the world’s wild mountain gorillas. It is also special because it’s located in a zone of protracted violent conflict: eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The conflict in this region defies easy explanation. It involves over 130 armed groups and is driven by a complex range of factors. These include conflict over land and natural resources, struggles around local authority – for instance, about the succession of chiefs – interference by neighbouring countries and militarised political competition.
Ongoing violence makes the protection of the park challenging, though park rangers are not the only group to face insecurity – the park, and its surroundings, are also very deadly for civilians. For example, earlier this month at least 22 civilians were massacred during a raid attributed to a rebel group in a village bordering the park in Beni territory.
What is the context within which attacks on rangers in Virunga national park occur?
In general, the security situation in North-Kivu – where the park is located – shows no signs of improving, as violence is ongoing.
Moreover, over the past five to seven years, the park guards have increasingly become a specific target of some of the numerous armed groups hiding and operating in the park. This can, in part, be explained by the rangers’ increasing efforts to halt illegal natural resources exploitation in the park, such as the production of charcoal and illegal fishing, which are important sources of revenue for many armed groups. Some of these efforts entail close collaboration with the Congolese army, such as joint patrols, intelligence sharing and sometimes joint operations. For rebel groups, this is a reason to consider the park guards a threat to their spheres of influence, sources of revenue and even existence.
Armed groups also once kidnapped tourists, which was aimed at sabotaging the park’s tourism potential.
Another, more indirect reason why park guards are under attack relates to anti-park sentiments among parts of the local population. There are numerous conflicts between the park management and people living around the park, which relate, amongst others, to contestations around the boundaries of the park, grievances about land appropriation, and the regulation of the use of natural resources. Armed groups, often closely linked to the population due to family and other social ties, mobilise these conflicts to obtain a measure of support in the areas where they operate. This includes the groups operating around Nyamilima, where the most recent attack took place. There are strong tensions in this area, as the park is aiming to erect an electric fence. This project is heavily disputed by the population, as they contest the park’s boundaries.
It’s important to stress that this doesn’t mean that people living in the area endorse the use of violence against park guards; in fact, many people condemn these acts and are committed to non-violent conflict resolution. Nevertheless, through our work, we’ve observed that attacks are more likely to take place in areas marked by intense conflicts.
Despite some recurring features, the context and circumstances of each attack are different. Attacks should therefore be investigated individually. This will help to hold perpetrators to account and create a better understanding of their motivations and objectives, which is important to avoid future attacks.
What steps have been taken to protect the park and its rangers?
Park guards receive sophisticated military-style training, including combat techniques, to defend themselves. They also have advanced logistical and communications equipment to allow for rapid movement and up-to-date information.
In addition, the park has developed an extensive system of aerial surveillance to track the bases and movements of armed groups. Furthermore, to operate in the more dangerous areas, it has created a quick reaction force, which is a more heavily armed unit deployed for robust operations.
Finally, in some areas, park guards operate jointly with the Congolese army, which has a much larger presence throughout the park.
How effective is this strategy and what else can be done?
The current response of increased military-style training and operations has led to inadvertent consequences, setting off a vicious cycle of violence. Increased pressure on armed groups and collaboration with the Congolese army leads almost inevitably to counterattacks.
Park guards – currently around 689 – are outnumbered by the armed groups operating in the park and are a very vulnerable target. Efforts to increase the park guards’ protection have so far not proven to be very effective. Park guards themselves feel this very clearly. While they are consistently depicted as heroes and martyrs, many are very afraid – and reluctant – to lose their lives.
In addition, the current approach has worsened relations between the park and local populations. During our research in the area, we found people fear and distrust the park guards. These tense relations are also regretted by the park guards we have spoken to. Some of them wish they were less expected to work as “soldiers” and more as conservationists.
We believe that the park guards’ security can be improved in two ways:
First, it is crucial to prioritise resolving conflicts with the people living around the park, and for the park to engage in more dialogue. In addition, the park should intensify efforts to protect the population against rampant insecurity.
Second, a comprehensive strategy needs to be developed for dealing with the armed groups operating in the park. Clearly, this is not the primary responsibility of the park, but of the Congolese government and the army, as well as politicians and community leaders.
Unfortunately, as ongoing insecurity testifies, there are limited signs that such a strategy is in the making, implying both park guards and the people living in the Virunga area will remain exposed to insecurity for the foreseeable future.