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Protecting Virunga Park and seeing Congo’s rich potential

Emmanuel de Merode -- anthropologist, Belgian prince and chief warden of the Virunga National Park -- has dedicated his life to the rich wildlife found within the precious and contentious national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That has meant actually risking his life; more than 100 of his rangers have died. He joins contributing editor Soledad O’Brien to discuss Congo’s future.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tonight, we conclude our series Congo's Hope with the story of park ranger Emmanuel de Merode.

    PBS NewsHour contributing editor Soledad O'Brien visited the Congo's Virunga National Park, where she learned just how dangerous and at times fatal it can be to protect the park's gorillas.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Emmanuel de Merode is an anthropologist, a Belgian prince, and chief warden of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most fought-over national parks on the planet.

    Once a draw for tourists, the park's animals and resources have been depleted by poachers and a civil war. The park's story was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated film "Virunga." De Merode commands a force of 680 rangers. He's lost 140 protecting the park and survived an attempt on his own life.

    We spoke to him about the fight to preserve the park and its rare and special creatures.

    You're an anthropologist by training. What made you want to dedicate your life to the mountain gorillas?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE, Director, Virunga National Park:

    I'm very attached to this country, to Congo. I came here 23 years ago as a volunteer, as a researcher.

    It was the simple fact that Congo some of the richest wildlife, some of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the world.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    How big is the park?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    It stretches on for 300 kilometers north. It's a very big park. What's special about it is, it's incredibly diverse, so there's probably no park on Earth that has such an incredible range of landscapes that go from the summit of the Rwenzori Mountains, which is right up in the north of the park, and that goes up to 17,000 feet.

    So you have glaciers on the equator. And then all the way down to about 3,000 feet, and, in between, just the most incredible range of utterly different landscapes. And because of that, you have got this incredible range of species.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    What kind of species?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    So, we have got the mountain gorillas that we have here, lowland gorillas and chimpanzees, but also all the Savannah species that are so classically African, the elephants, the hippos, this incredible assemblage.

    There's no park probably in the world that has so many species of mammals, reptiles, and birds as Virunga. That's what makes it so special. There's nowhere else in the world that I would like to live. And so it has everything for me.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Where are we right now? This is the walls of the orphanage.

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    So this is the Senkwekwe Center. And so it's a sanctuary that we built a few years ago with the help of Howard Buffett. It was built to provide a home for the mountain gorillas that were rescued after these terrible massacres that happened in 2007.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    And these orphans, will they live in here forever or do they go out into the bigger habitat at some point?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    You know, the ideal thing would be to reintroduce them into their natural habitat so that they can live a complete life as wild gorillas. But that may not be possible for all sorts of reasons. They may find it impossible to adapt back into the natural world.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    What can gorillas teach us?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    Well, there's an enormous amount, and it's not just the science.

    They're the window, in a sense, to relaunching a healthy economy in this region thanks to the tourism industry that's developing. But, in themselves, they're absolutely wonderful animals. There's nothing quite like mountain gorillas, because they're so powerful. They're incredibly gentle by nature.

    Their whole ecology and their whole social structure is very family based. And they take on the very gentle side of primate life in a sense. And so, because of that, we were able to spend a lot of time with them, because they welcome human beings into their groups.

    And over the years, we have developed a very rich literature, a very rich scientific knowledge on gorilla ecology, gorilla social systems that actually teach us a lot about ourselves.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    How close is a gorilla to a human being?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    In terms of their genetics, they're about 98 percent the same as we are. And so it's just an accident of evolution that we are here and that they are here. They, of course, tend to take the more positive aspects of our condition. And we tend to sometimes be more destructive.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Is the story of Virunga essentially a battle over resources and — and who owns them and who — who steals them?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    It's exactly that. There've been four catastrophic wars over the last 20 years.

    Every single one of those wars has started either in or immediately around the national park. Those wars collectively have — have caused the death of over six million people, so it's a very, very serious issue, and it's all about access to resources.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    What would you like people to know? I mean, there will be a bunch of people who have followed the conflict over the years and who will be watching this.

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    Yes.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    What would you — what's your message?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    Well, what we'd like is really to demonstrate that it's not just about a humanitarian crisis. There actually is an incredibly dynamic young population in Congo that really wants to work, and that really want to take hold of — you know, get control of their future by rebuilding the industry.

    What that means for people outside is that Congo is actually a very, very interesting place to invest in.

    Here, you can really get the full picture of how it all works.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Wow.

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    This will generate electricity for about 100 years. That's the lifespan of this plant. It generates 13 megawatts, which is basically three times what the whole city of Goma is getting at the moment.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    So, the whole point of creating power is to drive industry locally.

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    Yes.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    We saw a woman putting bananas onto her truck, or the boys carrying the sugarcane.

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    Yes.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    What happens? What's the process now?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    Well, that's really the tragedy of Congo, is that it's incredibly rich in resources, but they're all being exported.

    All the money is lost in transport, and none of it is retained for the people of Congo, and so really that's what we need to turn around. To be able to do it, the key is electricity.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Could you create an industry once you have power that would process the sugarcane, or process the bananas that these women are hauling?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    So, when we built our first hydroelectric plant, it was a very small one, a few hundred kilometers north from here. Before we'd even finished the plant, some investors came and built a soap factory, and that soap factory now employs 400 people.

    It also has increased the income for 10,000 farmers, producing palm oil, and it's reduced the price of soap for about five million Congolese consumers.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    So a win for the people, a win for the workers.

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    Yes. It's been…

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    All out of one hydroelectric plant.

    You have had to put your own life on the line as well.

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    Yes, at times, I think we all have, those of us who work here.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Can you talk about, as much as you would want to, the incident where you were shot?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    There are waves, there are periods of violence, and one of those was last year.

    And I was driving back towards the park. I happened to be alone in the vehicle. So, with hindsight, that was probably a mistake. As I was driving through a forested park up the road, I saw in the distance a man with a rifle. As I got closer, he raised his rifle and he opened fire on the vehicle.

    I realized I had to get away from that situation as quickly as I can. So I took the rifle that I had with me in the car and got out of the vehicle. And that point, I got hit in the chest and through the stomach. I was able to breathe and to get into the forest. And then what I remember is a very wonderful thing. There were two farmers who came, and they had seen what happened. And they came with a motorbike, and they picked me up.

  • SOLEDAD O’BRIEN:

    Did it ever make you think, maybe I should stop?

  • EMMANUEL DE MERODE:

    No, I think that's really a decision you make when you start. You know, I have lost many of my staff; 140 of our rangers have died since the war started, and 23 have died on my watch.

    They have died on the orders that I gave. And so it would never occur to me to stop.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Soledad will answer your questions about her reporting from the Democratic Republic of Congo Friday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern in our weekly NewsHour Twitter chat. Send your thoughts and your questions using #Congoshope or #NewsHourChats.

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