National Geographic : 2016 Jul
76 national geographic • July 2016 understanding that a generous slice of the prof- its would be handed over to Virunga’s uniformed men—and make its way up the food chain. Even in this moment of relative calm, ghosts have claimed far more of the central sector than its decaying hotel. The former ground zero for park tourists, Rwindi station, is still a no-go zone. The walls of the sector commander’s office are pocked with bullet holes. A UN military base lies nearby. Signs posted throughout Rwindi urge the locals to report any signs of a ranger’s suspicious activity. Late one morning Kambale and two other armed rangers drove me to Vitshumbi, a village on the south bank of Lake Edward, inside the park’s boundaries. Conceptually, Vitshumbi is a fishery with 400 boats licensed to fish on the lake, supporting about 5,000 people. In reali- ty, Vitshumbi is a squalid town with thousands of boats and perhaps 40,000 residents with no electricity or running water. What it does have are Mai-Mai militias, which have offered protection to Vitshumbi’s fishermen and farmers in exchange for a sur- charge. Behind the militias, Kambale and other rangers say, are politicians who supply the out- laws with boats and weapons. “It used to be that the Mai-Mais just fought with spears and ma- chetes,” a young ranger stationed in Vitshumbi told me. “Now the politicians have given them guns.” The ranger pointed to a bullet scar on his left bicep, a souvenir from a recent encounter with Mai-Mais on Lake Edward. One ranger and seven Congolese soldiers had been killed. Elsewhere during my three weeks in the park, unrest flickered ominously like a rogue torch in the night. From Vitshumbi a ranger boat was waiting to take me north to the hippo enclave of Lulimbi. Minutes before embark- ing, I learned that my trip was canceled by the park’s director of security, who called to say the lake was not considered safe from attack. Three days before that, in the southern sector where the mountain gorillas reside, an angry phalanx of at least 300 villagers had blocked the road outside the Mikeno Lodge for hours, saying that the park had failed to compensate them Mobutu Sese Seko came to visit—to entertain guests, to plot a course for the country he had renamed Zaire, but most of all to fish on the Rwindi River—it was Kambale’s job to hook a live worm onto Mobutu’s line. “Mobutu had great respect for the park,” said Matthieu Cin- goro, a lawyer for the Congolese national park system. “No one could farm in it or cut down trees. No one would even dare trespass.” Then came the refugees from Rwanda. The Rwindi Hotel abruptly locked its doors. The pa- trol station now saw a desperate new breed of visitor. “There were many of them, and some had guns and ammunition,” Kambale remem- bered. “Like that, the population increased, and these people had no food and had to look for charcoal, wood for fire, even meat in the park.” One armed group begat another. The distinc- tions blurred. Congolese soldiers deserted their posts and disappeared into the bush. Some joined Mai-Mai militias, which at times con- federated with the Hutu-based FDLR against all comers, including the rangers who sought to deny them a livelihood inside the park. As the Mobutu regime collapsed in 1997, so did any semblance of governmental structure. Virunga’s rangers saw their salaries slashed. They had to fend for themselves. Many did so by taking money from poachers, who would brazenly call a compromised ranger and direct him to come pick up a slaughtered buffalo. Oth- er rangers distributed tickets to locals, allow- ing them to harvest wood for charcoal with the Owing to the region’s chronic instability, a mere one‐tenth of Virunga is accessible to visitors—and really only half of that can be called tourist friendly.