Urgent investigation into shooting of Virunga Park Chief Warden needed
Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park, a World Heritage Site and home to some of the last remaining mountain gorillas on the planet. De Merode has been Chief Warden of Virunga since 2008 and a vocal opponent of oil exploration and the lucrative, illegal charcoal trade in the park. An investigation should examine whether there is any link between the exploitation of natural resources and the shooting.
Yesterday Global Witness published Deadly Environment, a report which documented the alarming rise in killings of environmental activists in recent years. It uncovered 147 recorded deaths in 2012, nearly three times as many as a decade earlier, and highlighted how the true number of people killed is likely to be much higher because information is very hard to verify, especially in Africa. The attack on de Merode is a terrible example of the kind of violence facing those working to protect the environment from unsustainable exploitation and abuse.
De Merode’s car was attacked by three men with assault rifles as he returned to his home at the park’s headquarters in Rumangabo from Goma. Despite receiving bullet wounds, he reached the Heal Africa hospital in Goma conscious and was operated on by a UN surgeon. He is due to be airlifted to Nairobi. The identity of his attackers and their motives are not known.
“We are extremely saddened and concerned about this horrific attack on a brave man. De Merode should be lauded for his principled leadership of Virunga National Park and his huge efforts to revive the park,” said Patrick Alley, Director of Global Witness. “Sadly, this is part of a growing international problem, and very little is being done about it. There should be an immediate investigation to bring to justice those behind this incident. Our thoughts at this time are with him, his family and colleagues in Virunga.”
The park is focus of a new feature-length documentary, “Virunga”, which is to premiere at the Tribeca film festival in New York tomorrow. The film is reported to follow “a handful of passionate park rangers and journalists fighting to secure the park’s borders”.
Virunga is in a remote part of unstable eastern Congo, still dotted with rebel groups linked to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its aftermath. Nearly 200 of the world’s last 880 remaining mountain gorillas live in the park, neighbouring the area in Rwanda made famous by primatologist Dian Fossey and the film Gorillas in the mist. Attacks on park rangers in Virunga are frequent, the most recent being in January 2014 when one ranger was killed and two others injured in an ambush.