National Geographic : 2016 Jul
Battle for virunga 71 only five percent of the park’s eight-million- dollar annual operating budget. Most comes from the European Union, the U.S. government, and international nonprofits. Though a first- class hotel, the Mikeno Lodge, opened in 2012 near the gorilla sector, and the sumptuous tent camp on Tchegera Island in Lake Kivu began receiving guests in 2015, the number of visi- tors has not come close to matching that of the park’s prewar heyday. Indeed, the lodge was empty throughout much of 2012 and 2013 as Virunga hosted the latest season of bloodshed, the M23 rebellion. In the years since, the park has experienced a renaissance thanks to projects, such as the Bukima roadbuilding effort, which aim to show Virunga’s neighbors that respect for the park will be rewarded. In particular, de Merode has embarked on an ambitious $166 million hydro- electric scheme utilizing the park’s rivers, with the aim of electrifying one-fourth of the area’s households by 2020 and creating 60,000 to 100,000 jobs along the way. The outcome, de Merode hopes, will be peace—and with that, more tourism, and thus more income for the region’s people, spurring an altogether differ- ent cycle from the one that is still bedeviling eastern Congo. Meanwhile, slowly, the wildlife has begun to rebound. Since the massacre of seven moun- tain gorillas by charcoal traffickers in 2007, their population has been rising. In the cen- tral sector preserve known as Lulimbi, hippos have mounted a surprising recovery, while elephants are wading back across the Ishasha River from the safe haven of Uganda. Aggres- sive antipoaching operations by rangers have sent an unambiguous message to ivory and bush-meat traffickers: Virunga is no longer an anything-goes playground. “It was a beautiful place,” Kambale said one afternoon as he stepped carefully through the weed-choked ruins of the Rwindi Hotel in the central sector. “The hotel was always over ca- pacity. Everyone came to see the wildlife and take pictures. There were so many animals. Even the parking lot was full of antelopes and wild pigs and all types of monkeys.” Today only baboons clamber through the brush. The cylindrical bungalows, the restau- rant, the ballroom, the pool where mzungu ladies sunned themselves on hot days like this— all vacant and caked with two decades’ worth of neglect. The ranger wore a doleful smile, and his eyes were lost in the past. He was born and raised near the Rwindi patrol station. During the year of Kambale’s birth, 1960, Congo won its independence from Belgium. Its population, 15 million, was a fifth of what it is now. There was plenty of land to go around, for farmer and animal alike. As a young ranger in the 1980s, Kambale sometimes had to climb a tree to avoid being trampled by a buffalo. When the dictator Bernadette Kahindo (at right) and her oldest daughter, Gift, are among the victims of the fighting. When Kahindo’s husband, park ranger Assani Sebuyori Mapine, tried to end the bush- meat trade, a rebel militia killed him in 2011 and left his headless body as a warning to other rangers. The child Gift holds was born after she was raped, at 14, by a fighter from another militia.