These park rangers would die (and have) to save mountain gorillas

CNN  — 

Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is Africa’s oldest national park. It is also Africa’s most dangerous.

On October 25th, park ranger Jean Claude Kiza Vunabandi was killed in the line of duty working to save endangered mountain gorillas up in the village of Mabenga. Shot and killed by unknown assailants, the 32-year-old-ranger became the latest fatality in a conservation effort where one of the most endangered species are the park rangers themselves.

140 rangers have been killed in the line of duty over the last 20 years. Armed poachers and roving militias – who have been warring in the park since the ’90s – outnumber park rangers ten to one.

Vunabandi’s colleague, Salange Kahambu, understands the dangerous reality of the job.

“The greatest danger is death,” says Kahambu, who began working as a park ranger a year ago. In that time, she has been shot at by a group of poachers.

“During patrols we come into contact with armed poachers or groups of armed people staying in the forest,” she says. “Whenever there are incidents, there are always deaths.”

The risks and successes of this work were recently captured in the Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary “Virunga.” The film’s tag line: “Conservation is war.”

“Even if there’s a period of intense armed conflict in the area,” says park director Emmanuel De Merode, who himself has been shot twice in the line of duty.

“They will still go out and protect those gorillas.”

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spc inside africa virunga national park c_00001221.jpg
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Worth fighting for

Virunga Map

The 3,000-square-mile park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to several endangered animals – some of which poachers deem more valuable dead than alive.

One of the species rangers are the most dedicated to protecting is the mountain gorilla. There are less than 900 left in the world, and nearly half of them live inside the park.

Under the guidance of De Merode, the rangers take what they call “extreme protection” over the species. While an air patrol monitors both mountain gorillas and militia movement, several rangers guard the park’s airstrip.

It’s a tactic that’s paying off. In the last 30 years, the park’s mountain gorilla population has nearly doubled.

“It’s been an enormous success. It’s probably one of the greatest miracles of modern conservation that they’ve done so well under such difficult circumstances,” says De Merode.

Virunga’s successes justify the danger involved for many of the park’s conservationists.

“We always say in life, those who risk nothing, have nothing,” says Kahambu defiantly.

“We can’t be scared of death.”

Meet the rangers who risk death to save mountain gorillas in the video below:

BUKIMA, VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, DRC - AUGUST 6: The Bageni family in the gorilla sector of Virunga National Park, on August 6, 2013 in Bukima, DR Congo. The gorilla sector is currently occupied by the M23 rebel movement of the Congolese army. Despite this and a previous occupation by a previous rebel group, the gorillas continue to survive, largely due the efforts of the ICCN, the Congolese Conservation Authority. The previous Bukima camps were destroyed, first by the CNDP rebel movement in 2008 and 2009; now most recently by their followers, the M23 rebels. Despite these setbacks and the ongoing danger, the ICCN Congolese conservation rangers continue to protect the mountain gorillas of the region and to plan for tourism which will follow if peace is achieved. UK company Soco International PLC is planning to explore for oil in DRC's Virunga National Park, a protected World Heritage Site and most biodiverse park in Africa. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images for WWF-Canon)
Where half of the world's mountain gorillas live
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