Virunga Ride-Along: Conservation in Africa’s Oldest National Park

By Jeffrey Marlow | September 27, 2016 8:27 am
A ranger keeps watch during a patrol stop along the boundary of Virunga National Park. (Image: Jeffrey Marlow)

A ranger keeps watch during a patrol stop along the boundary of Virunga National Park. (Image: Jeffrey Marlow)

Steering the clattering camo-green truck over the pitted lava flows that pass as roads in Virunga National Park, southern sector warden Innocent Mburanumwe looks intently out the windows, scouring the landscape for unusual activity. Six rangers sit on padded benches in the truck’s bed, equipped with an intimidating aresenal of rusting weapons.

Driving north out of Goma, the largest city along the eastern margin of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the road marks the park’s boundary. On the left, the dense forest cascades over itself in layers of green; on the right, parallel terraces of manioc, maize, and beets climb the hills, a rising tide that strands trees like marooned survivors.

Mburanumwe slams the brakes. He’s following the gaze of a crowd of passing women to a shouting match in the distance. Mburanumwe and five rangers dismount and trot toward a nearby berm while one stays with the vehicle and keeps watch. Remarkably, a Virunga sentry posted along this section of the road is on hand to give a report: three men from the nearby village had planned to cut down several of the park’s trees – for building supplies, for charcoal – but the sight of our truck careening toward them was a sufficient deterrant. “They have run off,” Mburanumwe says as he climbs back into the driver’s seat, “but I’m sure they will be back, and hopefully we can stop them again, convince them to not go into the park.”

Farming communities have consumed much of this remarkably diverse forest, as the same factors that enable the lush vegetation – fertile volcanic soil, plentiful rain – also make it a pretty appealing place to grow crops. And although Virunga is Africa’s oldest designated park, inaugurated as Albert National Park in 1925, enforcement of its boundaries has traditionally been lax. As a result, cropland has expanded and the charcoal industry has flourished, consuming almost 15,000 square miles of Virunga forest from 2001-2010. Demand for charcoal has increased with growing populations and more exports to neighboring Rwanda, where the government has begun to regulate its domestic charcoal production methods.

North of Goma, the road forms a stark boundary between the park (left) and agricultural communities (right). (Image: Jeffrey Marlow)

North of Goma, the road forms a stark boundary between the park (left) and agricultural communities (right). (Image: Jeffrey Marlow)

The enforcement of park boundaries is an encouraging sign for conservationists and ecotourism proponents, but the restrictions have long angered factions of the population. It’s a high-concept and understandably difficult sell, the notion that restricting people’s use of forest resources actually benefits the community in the long run. Why, locals ask, do outsiders care more about animals than people? The boundaries feel arbitrary, their purported benefits theoretical. And what use is the “long run” when your growing family needs to eat, today?

These tensions frequently boil over into violence: nearly 150 rangers have been killed on the job, as recently as a few weeks ago. This stretch of road we’re on – between the Nyiragongo volcano and the turn off to the Bukima station – is particularly treacherous, the site of several ambushes, including one on park director Emmanuel de Merode in 2014.

To ease the conflict of interest, park managers have adopted the carrot rather than the stick. The Virunga Alliance represents a new effort to make the park work for everyone. One plank of the platform involves hydropower plants to provide a reliable, healthier alternative energy source. “This way, they don’t need charcoal,” explains Mburanumwe, “they’re using electricity. We need to keep these projects going so the people can remain stable.”

Another, much larger energy source lies south of Goma, in the methane-rich depths of Lake Kivu. A natural gas power plant on the Rwandan side of the lake recently started production, and the DRC is hoping to follow suit. “Our aim is to have a natural gas project on this side,” says Mburanumwe, “so that in Goma they can have power everywhere.” Whether this will draw people from the rural communities to the city and decrease the threat to Virunga – as Mburanumwe hopes – or merely encourage additional outward sprawl from Goma is difficult to predict.

Nonetheless, Virunga seems to be coming into its own, finding the right mix of conservation and intelligent, sustainable exploitation that will ease the longstanding tension with the community. The model is largely untested, but it might just be the last best chance to save Africa’s oldest national park.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: environment, living world, top posts
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The Extremo Files

The Extremo Files traces the science that is pushing the boundaries of biology, from the deep sea to outer space to the brave new world of synthetic biology.

About Jeffrey Marlow

Jeffrey Marlow is a geobiologist exploring the limits of life, from the role of microbes in global elemental cycles to the possibility of life beyond Earth and the brave new world of synthetic biology. He received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology and is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar at Harvard University, where he studies the inner workings of methane-metabolizing organisms.

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