Located along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, categorized as ‘endangered’. Originally founded by King Albert I of Belgium, with the purpose of protecting mountain gorillas, the park is still a destination for scholars and enthusiasts looking to see the species in its natural habitat.
Congo’s Civil Wars and poaching had negative effects on wildlife. These incursions have been challenged by the park’s rangers – since 1994 approximately 140 have been killed in the line of duty.
Despite the ongoing threats, conditions in the park have improved in recent years, making grow in popularity as a tourist destination. Approximately 3,000 visit each year. In May 2016, Michael Christopher Brown joined a group of visitors as they climbed Mount Nyiragongo to view the volcano and observe gorillas.
Bukima camp is the base from which to see eight separate groups of mountain gorillas, including members of the Rugendo group, pictured here. Ranger Andre Bauma has been taking care of orphan gorillas for more than four years.
Virunga Park Rangers work with hounds and a spaniel. The hounds help hunt poachers while the Spaniel helps to find weapons and ivory.
A ranger post lies nearby graves for fallen Rangers, killed while in combat with poachers. December 2016 saw the latest such incident; 26-year-old Patrick Muhayirwa died whilst protecting gorillas from Mai Mai rebels looking to poach.
Mount Mikeno, a dormant volcano, looms in the background over the town. Landscapes of the glow of two volcanoes at night, in this case Mount Nyamuragira.
Further threats to the gorilla’s habitat come in the form of companies looking to exploit the area’s natural resources. UK-based oil company SOCO International, who the World Wildlife Fund raised concerns about in 2013, did an environmental assessment report that admitted that oil exploration is likely to cause pollution, irreparably damage habitats and bring poaching to the park.
Their exploration was halted in 2014, thanks to a public outcry, amplified by actor/producer Leonardo DiCaprio’s Academy Award-nominated Netflix doc Virunga. However, the fight to protect the site is far from over; In November 2016, Uganda, which also borders the park, announced it had accepted bids for six new oil contracts, one of which would allow drilling in Lake Edward in the middle of the park.
There is hope that the rise of eco-tourism to the area may mean that the growth industry becomes lucrative enough so as to ward off financial arguments for bleeding the park of its natural resources.