National Geographic : 2016 Jul
60 national geographic • July 2016 slender one, between the region’s most visible national institution and villagers who view the park with hostility and, at times, rage, believing the land should still belong to them. Here was where the ranger, a captain named Theo Kambale, parted ways with the young men. Kambale’s heart held nothing but reverence for the park. You could see it in the crispness of his uniform, the care with which he tucked his green pants into his boots, which he fastidiously pol- ished. Kambale was 55 and had spent 31 of those years as a ranger. His father, also a ranger, had died in 1960, the year of Kambale’s birth, gored by an African buffalo. His older brother had also been a ranger. He too had been slain in the line of duty, in 2006. The killer was not a wild ani- mal, but instead a member of one of many armed When the ranger studied the ragtag crew he was supervising, seven young men repairing a rugged road that leads to Virun- ga National Park, it did not take much to see what he had in common with them. They were all born and raised in or around the park on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. None of them were rich. None of them would ever be rich. All of them had seen loved ones fall by the capricious machete stroke of a war with murky logic and no foreseeable end. And now here they all were, working for the park, filling potholes and clearing drainage ditches in the furtherance of something consid- erably more profound than nine miles of rough gravel. The road joins the Bukima ranger post with tourists from the West, whose money helps support Africa’s oldest national park. These vis- itors come here principally to fulfill a dream— namely, to stand mere feet away from the park’s illustrious residents, the rare mountain gorillas. Less famous but just as important, the Buki- ma road connects farmers outside the park with village markets and the city of Goma beyond. For years it had been a morass of large rocks and quicksand-like mud. Its impassability made hard lives that much harder. But now the park was pouring money into the road’s reconstruc- tion. And local men like these were repairing it. So the road also constituted a bond, albeit a By Robert Draper Photographs by Brent Stirton the power of parks a yearlong exploration Emmanuel de Merode, flanked by bodyguards at park headquarters nine months after he survived an assassina- tion attempt, has led the park for eight years. He has become the public face of the conservation effort in war-torn eastern Congo and a target for the park’s opponents.