GOMA - Given the genocidal record of Belgium's King Leopold II in the Congo towards the end of the 19th century, the choice of Emmanuel de Merode - a descendant of Belgian royalty - as director of Africa's oldest national park might raise some eyebrows. But as crisis threatens to overwhelm Virunga National Park, which lies at the epicentre of a war zone, it is Merode's credentials that count rather than past colonial misdeeds.
London-born Merode, a former head of the conservation group Wildlife Direct, is now responsible for the Democratic Republic of Congo's endangered mountain gorilla population, whose plight came to the world's attention last year when photographs of four bullet-ridden carcasses were published. The appointment follows a year which has seen rebel general Laurent Nkunda's army take over the park, swamping it with an estimated 16,000 armed militia.
Last week saw the heaviest fighting between the rebels and government forces for a year, and at the centre of the fighting was the Virunga. A growing demand for bushmeat and other illegal products has led to massive and sustained attacks on the park's wildlife. The hippo population of Lake Edward, once the greatest in the world, has been nearly wiped out. The greatest reserve in Africa, with more mammal, bird and reptile species than any other ecosystem, is in grave peril.
With financial help from the European Union, Merode hopes to re-establish the rule of law, save what remains of the wildlife and secure the park on a basis of stability and economic growth. It is, to put it mildly, a dangerous mission. A number of his predecessors have lost their lives. Caught up in Africa's bloodiest civil war and deadly fighting between gorilla poachers and illegal charcoal traders, the aristocratic director must manage 680 park rangers. There were once 800, but 120 trackers and guides have been slaughtered in the past decade.
'I know this is a tough job,' Merode told The Observer 'You only have to look at the intensity of the conflict in and around the park to understand this is a daunting challenge, but it is a great privilege to be working alongside such a dedicated and courageous team of rangers.'
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The fate of the gorillas, believed to number around 190 of the world's remaining 700, is causing growing concern. Last year was the bloodiest on record, as 10 gorillas were shot and killed and two others went missing. The rangers don't know for certain the motive of the 'executions', but believe that charcoal traders are to blame. The great apes may have the potential to draw tourist revenue to a desperately poor region and bring in vital funding through conservation groups, but their environment is being destroyed around them.
'Nobody knows what's happening to the gorillas up there,' says Felician, a local tracker. 'The few who go in can't find them in the upper slopes any more. We hear and sometimes see the fighting; we don't know if the gorillas are in the middle or in the outer edges.'
'Despite the fighting, we are as determined as ever to get back in,' Merode said, adding that mortar and grenade explosions had been booming around the park for days. 'It is critical that we know the status of the mountain gorillas. The more cut off we are from them, the less chance we have of securing their survival.
'The Democratic Republic of Congo is emerging from one of the most traumatic wars since the Second World War. All of its institutions, including the judicial system, are very frail, very fragile. Millions of innocent civilians have died. What has happened to the gorillas is a terrible tragedy, but it is in the context of something that's even worse.
'What has driven the war in eastern Congo is the pillaging of natural resources. And be it the forests, be it the minerals, it's the richest country in the world with the poorest people. We're losing one of the world's greatest gems in terms of natural resources, in terms of human heritage and in terms of global heritage.'