What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

In ‘Virunga,’ rangers risk death to save Africa’s oldest national park

Virunga National Park in Eastern Congo is the spectacular home to the only mountain gorillas left on the planet, and many other types of wildlife. A new documentary tells the story of a group of rangers working to protect the park from threats of civil war, poachers and oil exploration. Jeffrey Brown interviews filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: a new documentary about a mission to preserve a renowned national park in Africa. It was released on Friday on Netflix and in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

    Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Virunga National Park tucked in the depths of the Eastern Congo is one the most diverse places on earth, home to endemic birds, buffalo and 800 mountain gorillas, the only ones on the planet. It is a spectacular place, Africa's oldest national park, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    A new documentary titled "Virunga" tells the story of the park and the life-and-death fight of a group of rangers working to protect it from a number of threats, armed militias fighting a civil war in the area, poachers seeking the kill the animals, and the efforts, including corruption and bribery, according to filmmakers, of a British company, SOCO International, to explore for oil.

    In a response, SOCO International says the film misrepresents their activities in the national park and — quote — "doesn't accurately portray the company's track record of responsible operating."

    Filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel joined me in our studio recently.

    Now, you focus on the efforts of a number of rangers in the park to — to — well, to save the park, and specifically the animals. How did you come to find them?

    ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL, Filmmaker, "Virunga": Well, I mean, I went out to try and document a story about the rebirth of Eastern Congo, because the park — I was inspired by this park that not only had rangers who were risking their lives to save the last of the world's mountain gorillas, but also was pushing forward these really ambitious development projects, tourism, hydropower, agriculture efficiency, and really trying to bring stability and peace through economic development in a region which has experienced 20 years of war.

    I started living with the rangers. I lived with them in the park for 11 months and just followed their work. And they are some of the most inspiring people of integrity I have ever met. I mean, they will die for the park.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And they get very close to the animals. We have a little clip, a very short clip I want to show.

    This is one of the rangers, Andre?

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    Balma.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Balma.

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    Andre Balma, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    With one of the gorillas. Let's look at that.

  • MAN:

    They must not see that they are abandoned. They must feel they are in the family.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The gorillas themselves, what is the situation for the gorillas?

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    So, there's only about 800 mountain gorillas left in the entire world. There's probably more people in this building than there is mountain gorillas. They're incredibly endangered.

    The park is home to the last of them. It's doing its best to improve — improve the situation for the gorillas. And it's doing a good job of that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Things had been relatively peaceful in the park and in this area of Congo when you started, I gather, right?

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    Absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And then war broke out?

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    Yes.

    So I had only been on there a month. I was trying to tell this positive story. And after about only four weeks on the ground, this new civil war started. And I also learned about the park's very serious concerns about illegal oil exploration by SOCO International.

    So the film I was trying to make at the beginning took this massive U-turn and became something very different entirely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And you spent a couple of years, you were telling me, following the — tell — I mean, what kinds of things are the rangers doing? What surprised you in watching what they were doing?

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    I mean, I think, you know, one of the things that I have taken away that really humbled me is that these people will risk their lives. Every day, they wake up knowing it could be their last. I mean, 140 of them have died in the last 20 years protecting Virunga.

    And they do that because they know the potential this place has to transform the region for the better. And that's humbling, that people will die for a bigger purpose.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of them, one of the main characters, Rodrigue Katembo…

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    … he was himself a child soldier. I mean, it's a very moving story of where he had come from, to devoting himself to the park.

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    So, I mean, his — yes, his story is incredibly inspiring.

    And the — because of his upbringing, because of his upbringing, so challenging, he doesn't want that same thing to happen to his own son who is 9 years old. So he is devoting his life to improve the country, doing that by working with the Virunga National Park, and in the process hoping that his son won't have to go through the same thing that he did.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, of course, in protecting the park, there is the larger question here of the country itself, right, a very troubled country for many years.

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, there's been war in Eastern Congo — in Congo for the last 20 years. It was after the Rwanda genocide that this instability pushed into Congo, and there has been war for a long time. And the reason the park is so special, the reason it's so important to protect this place is because it really does hold the keys to driving forward stability and economic development in Eastern Congo.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, so what do you want viewers to take away from the film?

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    We want viewers to understand about what is going on in this park, because it's something which really everybody around the world, your viewers should be really concerned about.

    Protecting the Virunga National Park isn't just about protecting the last of the world's mountain gorillas or protecting a part of Eastern Congo that really can drive forward stability and peace. You see, there is a precedent here.

    Virunga is a World Heritage Site, and these are parts of our planet that humanity has decided are so special that there shouldn't be things like oil exploration or gas exploration in them. And so if the Virunga National Park, Africa's oldest national park, if somewhere as iconic as that falls in the face of business interests, what is left of our planet that is safe from human greed?

    And that's why everyone should be so concerned about what is happening here.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the new film is "Virunga."

    Orlando von Einsiedel, thank you so much.

  • ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In the run-up to the film's release, SOCO International halted all operations in Virunga National Park. The move comes after the World Wildlife Fund and the oil company agreed that exploring for oil would only be possible if UNESCO and the DRC government agree it wouldn't conflict with Virunga's Heritage status.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest