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.”