It’s one of the world’s greatest natural parks, a place where you can see the okapi, giraffe, chimpanzees, hundreds of bird species endemic to the area and more than half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. But Virunga National Park is one of the most dangerous places in the world.
For Virunga has been, going on two decades, a war zone. In 1994 the horrific ethnic conflict in neighbouring Rwanda that led to the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus spilled across the border into Congo.Hutu fighters and more than a million refugees fled Rwanda after their defeat, settling in nightmarishly overcrowded camps around the park. Armed groups infest the area, killing the park’s wildlife for food or for sale as bush meat.
“Owing to the region’s chronic instability, a mere one-tenth of Virunga is accessible to visitors–and really only half of that could be described as tourist friendly . The park’s VIPs–the 250 to 300 mountain gorillas that are habituated to humans–are kept under daily watch by a security team of 80 humans, as would befit a president or a pope. Virunga is national property , but the government in Kinshasa contributes only five percent of the park’s eight-million-dollar annual operating budget. Most comes from the European Union, the US government, and international nonprofits,“ writes Robert Draper.
But even so, things are looking up, says Draper. Since the massacre of seven mountain gorillas by charcoal traffickers in 2007, their population has been rising. And other species numbers are rising as well.