I gaze at the 400-plus-pound silverback in what I hope is a submissive fashion. I was warned not to stare. But Humba, the king of a family of mountain gorillas, is a spectacular animal.
He’s as big as a piano, but somehow able to leap up and grab the top of a slender tree and bend it to the ground like a slingshot. Human-like, but not human. And those piercing eyes. To be within a dozen feet of one of these amazing creatures is a bucket-list experience I didn’t even know existed.
Emmanuel de Merode hopes others will make the long trek to Rumangabo, Democratic Republic of Congo, where Virunga National Park is home for 220 of the endangered beasts. But as the park’s chief warden, he knows only the hardiest travelers are likely to accept an invitation to a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the country, one of the world’s deadliest war zones.
To make the park safe for wildlife and visitors, De Merode and his army of rangers have had to take on gun-toting guerrillas, poachers and illegal charcoal traders. Since 1996, more than 130 rangers have been killed, most of them by poachers or armed rebels.
Editor’s note: Emannuel de Merode was shot by an unknown assailant April 15 on the road leading to park headquarters from Goma. He was airlifted to a hospital in Nairobi and is expected to fully recover, according to a park employee. The police are reportedly investigating the attack.
Can tourism lead to a better way of life in war-torn nation?
The latest and most serious threat is what critics call the “oil curse.” The Congolese government is considering revising its laws to allow oil drilling in Virunga and other protected sites. The World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany and the European Union Parliament have opposed such a move. They fear oil exploration will introduce serious threats to the park’s fragile ecosystem and worsen the regional conflicts.
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De Merode believes he can offer the people of the Congo a better life than poachers or oil companies. He has launched an ambitious partnership with philanthropist Howard Buffett, eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett, to turn Virunga into a multimillion-dollar job-creating platform using a combination of luxury tourism, fisheries, agribusiness and energy. But for De Merode and Buffett to win this high-stakes battle, they need others to enlist, starting with the world’s travelers. Call it adventure tourism with a purpose: Visit the Virunga, save a gorilla’s life and maybe a country.
Virunga is “the greatest park on earth and it is something that absolutely has to be protected, no matter what,” says De Merode, a boyish 43-year-old who grew up in Kenya and is a member of the Belgian royal family.
In spite of the damage from fighting and poachers, Virunga remains one of the world’s most biologically rich landscapes: It is home to 706 species of birds as well as 218 mammal species and 109 reptile species. It is the only place on the planet where you can see all three of the great ape species: the mountain gorilla, the lowland gorilla and the chimpanzee. The park is home to a quarter of the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas.
Virunga was closed in April 2012 after the M23, one of two dozen groups battling for territory in the eastern Congo, seized control of the park headquarters. But in November 2013, the rebels agreed to negotiate a peace agreement, and in the past month the Congolese government has launched a major U.N.-backed offensive against the remaining insurgents. I visited Virunga in January as the park’s staff prepared to welcome tourists back.
Safety is De Merode’s top priority. Our gorilla trek began with a hike through villages and terraced fields of vegetables, accompanied by several park rangers armed with AK-47s and two-way radios. Innocent Mburanumwe, a senior ranger, met us at a station several hours up Mount Mikeno. The 38-year-old Congolese native knows each of the park’s seven “habituated” gorilla families by sight.
Before we set off through the jungle on a narrow path hacked through the undergrowth, Mburanumwe gave us strict instructions on how to behave. If a gorilla charges, don’t run, he said firmly. “Watch me and follow my lead. If the gorilla shows any signs of agitation, such as chest beating, look down submissively. Do not, under any circumstances, try to touch an animal.”
Mburanumwe took the lead, using grunts and other guttural sounds to let the gorillas know we were coming. As we drew close, we were asked to put on white medical masks to protect the animals from human diseases.
Amazingly, he was able to get us within a dozen feet of Humba and his harem, close enough to see the flies on the giant silverback’s black shiny fur and watch two young gorillas thump each other’s chests before skittering off into the jungle. A $400 permit bought an hour with the gorillas, significantly less than a similar experience would cost in Uganda and Rwanda.
De Merode is offering visitors a high-end experience at a bargain price. Congolese are being hired and trained at the Mikeno Lodge, where visitors stay in luxurious thatched-roof huts with stone fireplaces. Rangers are building a high-end tent camp on Mount Mikeno so gorilla trekkers can sleep under the stars.
For adventurers willing to endure a rugged five-hour hike, the park is weatherizing eight wooden cabins perched on a ledge high on Mount Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanos within the park’s boundaries. Their reward will be a night overlooking the world’s largest inland lava lake, lulled to sleep by the roar of the bubbling lava and an occasional whiff of sulfur.
“Every habitat you can imagine except desert and coastline is contained in Virunga,” says De Merode, describing a “best-of-Virunga” tour — yet to be developed — that will encompass all the park’s unique offerings, including a glass-bottomed boat excursion to watch hippos swim in crystal-clear spring-fed pools. “It is exceptional, and it is the window through which a whole economic sector will develop.”
Evelyn Iritani’s trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Top photo: Humba, the king of a gorilla family living at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Evelyn Iritani