After Violence, Congo’s Virunga National Park Closes for the Year

Posted June 19, 2018 4:10 p.m. EDT

On the morning of May 11, Rachel Masika Baraka, a park ranger, was setting out on a normal day at work in Virunga National Park, the oldest, largest and most biologically diverse park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Baraka, 25, one of the park’s 26 female rangers, would be accompanying two British tourists, Bethan Davies and Robert Jesty, and the Congolese driver of their vehicle during their tour of the 3,000-square-mile park, where they hoped to spot Virunga’s famed mountain gorillas amid dense jungle vegetation.

Before the day was done, though, Baraka had been killed, and the British tourists and their driver kidnapped, victims of the deadly regional violence that has increasingly crept into the park.

Although the three were released two days after the kidnapping, park authorities announced that Virunga National Park — the first national park in Africa (established in 1925), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the main driver of Congo’s tourism economy — would be closed to tourists until 2019. In a statement posted on the park’s website, Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s chief warden, called the closure a “profoundly difficult decision,” but added that visitors’ safety was of the “highest priority.” “For Virunga to be safely visited, much more robust measures are needed than in the past,” he wrote. “This will require a very significant investment, and makes it impossible for us to reopen tourism this year.”

The impact of the park’s closure has hit the local Congolese tourism economy hard. “I am deeply economically wounded,” said Obed Tuyumvire, a local Congolese tour guide who works in Virunga. He noted that he is awash in refund requests from tourists who had booked their trips ahead of time and now are asking for their money back. “For me, this is catastrophic.”

Mukanirwa Joseph Noellard is a second-generation guide to Virunga and now Noellard helps run a local tour agency, Bamba Tours. “We heard it was closed, and then, nothing more,” he said by phone, his voice cracking with emotion. He employs six local Congolese workers in his office, but said he will soon have to lay some of them off. “I can’t pay six people to wait in the office and hope that the situation improves,” he said. “I have no choice but to send them home. I am totally heartbroken.”

The closure of the park does not entirely come as a complete surprise. Violence in the region has been on the increase over the past year. Rebel group activity in northeastern Congo had led to a spike in violence in the region in the months before the December presidential election, raising concerns that the country could slide back into civil war.

That violence has spilled over into the park. In 2014, de Merode was shot four times while traveling through the park. More than 175 park rangers have been killed while protecting the park over the last two decades — in just the last 10 months, 12 rangers have been killed — making Virunga one of the deadliest conservation projects in the world.

Noellard knows the danger of working in Virunga firsthand: Three years ago, while accompany Belgian tourists, his car was stopped by armed militants, and he and the tourists were stripped of their valuables during the armed robbery. “But we were lucky, because we were not kidnapped,” he said.

In contrast to the violence, Virunga has been considered a conservation success story: At the end of May, the World Wildlife Fund announced that a new survey coordinated by the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration found that the number of critically endangered mountain gorillas around the world exceeded 1,000 for the first time in years, setting a record, thanks in large part to Virunga.

As the number of gorillas rose, so did the number of tourists. Since 2014, the park has received 17,000 visitors, despite the fact that visiting the gorillas is not cheap: a one-day gorilla trek costs $400 per person.

Now, the closure creates an impact that spreads much farther than the confines of the park. Wil Smith runs the tour company Deeper Africa from his office in Boulder, Colorado. After nearly two decades of operating tours to Africa, he was thrilled to be able to offer his first tours to Virunga this summer. He had three trips planned and booked for tourist groups over the summer months.

“Virunga is a park that has struggled and is threatened and yet is still doing a really heroic job of protecting the wildlife at the same time,” Smith said. “So I was excited to support that.” He notes that the American tourists who commit to a trip to Virunga are a self-selecting, adventuresome bunch. “I tell them, look, there’s a travel warning, not just an advisory on that region, but for people who want to really experience the unknown and a real wilderness area, Virunga is a perfect fit.” He called the park’s closure “a huge disappointment.”

In 2013, the World Wildlife Fund released a report on the economic impact of Virunga National Park on the local economy. Allard Blom, managing director for the Congo Basin Program of the World Wildlife Fund notes that the tourism revenue that Virunga brings to the local area is “one of the reasons that in general people do not poach gorillas.” Now, he is concerned that Virunga’s closure could impact the gorillas in the long term. With its closure, “the park is losing a large amount of revenue and so will have to reduce operations, meaning less protection for the gorillas.”