African Voices

Former child soldier wins prize for risking his life to protect Congo’s wildlife

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Film shines light on need to protect mountain gorillas
02:37 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

Rodrigue Katembo endured death threats to save Africa's oldest national park

Katembo protects Congo's last remaining mountain gorillas

He's won a top environmental award for his bravery

CNN  — 

He has been beaten, threatened and imprisoned. But the former child soldier and winner of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize says he will not stop until those wanting to destroy the Democratic Republic of Congo’s protected wildlife “are held responsible for their actions.”

“Even if I or others are not able to (make this happen),” says Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, “then the future generations will have this information and will do it.”

Katembo who is 41, has been awarded the top environmental prize in recognition of the heroism he showed in preventing oil exploration inside Virunga – Africa’s oldest national park. His dangerous undercover investigations exposed bribery and corruption among officials.

The Virunga National Park is home to the world's largest lava lake, a 250-meter wide cauldron of steam and smoke.

Conservationists say oil exploration would have threatened the habitat of the park’s critically endangered gorillas, elephants and lions.

Saving gorillas, a dangerous job

The park is home to a quarter of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas, there are less than 900 left globally. Covering the size of a small country, Virunga is more than 3,000 square miles packed with volcanoes, lush forests and mountain glaciers that tear through the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.

As a park ranger, Katembo has one of the most dangerous jobs in the region. Amidst political instability, armed poachers and rebels – who have been warring in the park for the past 20 years – outnumber park rangers ten to one.

Militia groups have killed more than 160 of his colleagues and community members in recent decades.

“Some of them were illegally arrested, others paid the ultimate price for the protection of Virunga,” says Katembo. “They really fought with their heart to protect the park.”

Katembo has loved wildlife since he was young. But like many in the African nation, he has been touched by war. When he was 14 years old in 1989, Katembo was taken as a child soldier, during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s long running armed conflict.

He would remain a soldier for eight years in different rebel groups. After peace was briefly restored, he began work at Virunga, in 2003, protecting the land and healing the community.

“The park brings a lot of different kinds of services that are benefiting the community,” he told CNN. “For instance you have the protected fisheries where many fishermen are able to sustain their families and are able to generate income.”

A man stands on the back of a truck in Rumangabo. Virunga is a picturesque backdrop to one of the most violent and longest runing armed conflict.

‘You deserve to die’, threats and shootings

Protecting Virunga hasn’t been easy.

In 2013, Katembo was arrested and held for 17 days. He believes it was because days prior to his arrest he had attempted to stop construction of an oil communication device within the park.

Virunga Map 2

Katembo says he received phone calls telling him: “You have betrayed the country … You deserve to die.”

Local chiefs have offered him bribes, “to help them get oil exploration going in the park,” he says, “they proposed $5,000 just to do that.” This figure would have been nearly five times his annual salary.

Unknown gunmen shot the park’s director Emannuel de Mérode in what’s believed to have been a failed assassination attempt in April 2014.

Netflix documentary highlights struggle

A Netflix documentary called “Virunga”, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and produced by Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, has helped draw global attention to the park.

The documentary follows Katembo, colleagues André Bauma, Emmanuel du Merode and French investigative journalist Mélanie Gouby, as they battle oil exploration and armed conflict in the park.

In 2010, UK oil giant SOCO was authorized by the DRC government to explore for oil within parts of the park.

Conservationists said the move was illegal because of the park’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. There were allegations of intimidation of local communities and rangers including Katembo. SOCO has denied the claims and in 2014 ended its project.

Zebra numbers are on the rise at Upemba National Park, thanks to Katembo and his local rangers.

Following the film and Katembo’s investigations, campaigns by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have so far kept oil exploration out of Virunga.

New chapter

In 2015, Katembo became director of Upemba National Park, in southern DRC. Here, he faces many of the challenges he battled at Virunga. Gold and emerald mining as well as armed poachers pose the biggest threat to the park’s biodiversity. Armed rebel groups control parts of the park.

For their safety, he lives apart from his family and small children, seeing them just every six months.

“We need to have the same kind of strategies in place to combat illegal mining exploration in the park and have the laws be respected like we did in Virunga,” he says.

“We need to have a support at national and international level.”

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