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Conservationist Shot In Africa's Oldest Nature Preserve


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. In the Democratic Republic of Congo this past week, a noted conservationist is recovering from gunshot wounds after an attack by unknown assailants. Forty-three-year-old Emmanuel de Merode is a Belgian Prince. He is also the director of Africa's oldest nature preserve, Virunga National Park. It's a world heritage site and one of the most bio diverse places on Earth. Nearly a quarter of the world's critically endangered mountain gorillas live in the park.

Allard Blom is the managing director of Congo Basin at the World Wildlife Fund and a former colleague of de Merode. He says Virunga National Park has the potential to bring in much-needed tourist revenue to the Congo, but decades of conflict make that difficult.

ALLARD BLOM: Tourism has the potential to generate significant revenue. Just across the border is the park in Rwanda where you can also visit the mountain gorillas, and it's one of the biggest foreign currency earnings for the Rwandan government. So tourism can be a significant contributor to local development there in that region. And at Virunga National Park, you know, the wars made tourism really a dicey enterprise.

MARTIN: Can you describe how that insecurity is creating problems within the park? There's poachers. There are also militias that are using the park as a sanctuary of sorts.

BLOM: That is correct. The park has seen a lot of conflict. The militias have taken up residence in the park. Of course, poachers are an important category of people that provide insecurity. There's also people who go for the charcoal, so deforestation. Charcoal is the major source of energy in a city like Goma, which is the regional capital. Security was, until, you know, I would say three to six months ago, when things really started improving, was a major problem. However, it is definitely been improving to such an extent that the park has been reopened for tourism.

MARTIN: When we think about park rangers in this country, we think about people who are intimately knowledgeable about trails and wildlife and plant life, not people who are working in conflict zones. How do rangers operate there in that park? What do they have to be prepared for?

BLOM: You know, a lot of these poachers are very heavily armed. Their favorite weapon of choice is the AK-47, or Kalashnikov. So the rangers have also military training and are basically conducting patrols on a more military-style tactics than what would be normally considered for park personnel. It is definitely a very dangerous job. Many Rangers have been killed over the years and not only in Virunga, but in some of the other parks in Africa, as well.

MARTIN: How have the gorillas fared through all of this violence and strife and instability?

BLOM: I mean, the mountain gorilla is really conversation success story, particularly given the fact that this is the one of the most unstable parts of the world and has seen a lot of violence. Mountain gorilla numbers have actually increased during all that time. Some of the militia have actively helped protect them, particularly the notion of the M23, who actually stopped fighting last year. And they - in fact, when they were controlling a large part of the park, they started gorilla tourism up themselves, so just to see how valuable they consider those gorillas.

MARTIN: There is this moment, as you describe it, of optimism about the park's security. Things have been getting better. The gorilla population has been growing. So I imagine this attack on Mr. de Merode is coming as quite a setback of sorts.

BLOM: Yes, of course. I mean, first of all, on the personal level, I know him well. And you know, it's always a shock to hear something like that happening. But then, as I mentioned, Virunga is such a special place. It is a stunning, beautiful park. Tourism could bring in a lot of jobs and money. You know, we still don't know who was behind his attack. Was it random or it was actually targeted? We don't even know that. Yes, a setback, but I don't think it's the end of the road. I think we - there is optimism.

MARTIN: Allard Blom is the managing director of the Congo Basin at the World Wildlife Fund. Thanks so much for talking with us.

BLOM: You're welcome. It was a great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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