"Ndakasi, she likes to play so much," says Andre Bauma as he watches the orphan tumble around gleefully with some of the other staff at the Senkwekwe Centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). The five-year-old twirls around on a swing and claps her hands.
As Bauma leaves the building, the centre's other youngsters - Maisha, Kaboko, and Ndakasi's sister Ndeze - follow him into the garden. All have been orphaned by the violence that has devastated eastern DR Congo in recent decades. Ndeze sits quietly on the floor for a minute eating a snack, while Kaboko and Maisha, wanting a piggyback ride, tug on the end of Bauma's polo shirt. "They have a great affection for each other," he says. "It's love."
Ndakasi, Maisha, Kaboko, and Ndeze are mountain gorillas - the only members of the endangered Gorilla beringei beringei species in captivity anywhere in the world - and Bauma is their soft-spoken caretaker. The centre sits atop a hill in the rainforests of Virunga, Africa's oldest and most biodiverse national park. The gorillas once roamed the dense forest here, before their parents were killed by poachers and Bauma took them in.
"I have my human family," says Bauma. "I always tell them, 'You are my family, but we have another family [here] in Rumangabo'." Kaboko, the one-metre-tall male gorilla, perches on a fallen tree trunk and drapes his arm around Bauma, who strokes his arm and makes gentle grunting sounds to calm him when he becomes agitated.
'I may die at any time'
Bauma is one of a team of 400 rangers whose job it is to protect Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to around one-quarter of the world's remaining mountain gorillas as well as a range of other wildlife. The park encompasses almost every habitat imaginable, from rainforest to open savannah, from glacial mountain peaks to a permanent lava lake.
Rangers commit to protect the park, under very dangerous conditions, to their last breath.
Clad in khaki and armed with AK-47s, the rangers patrol the park daily, checking up on wildlife, tracking down poachers, and, when the security situation allows, accompanying tourists on wildlife and volcano treks. It's a dangerous job; according to a recent UNESCO assessment, nine armed militias operate in and around the park, and in the past two decades more than 130 rangers have been killed, including 20 in the past three years.
Rangers are currently doing the difficult and dangerous job of securing and re-opening one of the park's premier tourist attractions, the Nyiragongo volcano. It has been closed to tourists since 2012, when fighting between the M23 rebel group and the Congolese army threw the region into chaos.
Although gorilla tourism opened up again earlier this year, rangers in the volcano region are still rooting out armed groups who took advantage of the turmoil to engage in lucrative, illegal charcoal-making in the area. "Every single armed group operating in eastern Congo is tied to the illegal exploitation of natural resources," says Virunga's chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode. "That's how they survive."
"I may die at any time in an ambush by people against the protection of the park," says senior warden Rodrigue Mugaruka. "Rangers commit to protect the park, under very dangerous conditions, to their last breath." Mugaruka, who is a former child soldier, has a son and sees Virunga as a chance to bring stability to an area of the country stricken by extreme violence and poverty. "We don't want people of his generation to inherit a country as broken as ours," he says.
Building a better life for the four million people who live less than a day's walk from the park is a key goal of chief warden de Merode and his rangers. In partnership with international funders, the park has launched a sustainable development project that aims to create 60,000 jobs in the region by 2025 - six times the number of people currently driven, often by poverty and instability, to join armed militias.
Two hydroelectric plants have already been built, spurring the creation of a soap factory, and the park is working with communities on Lake Edward to stop overfishing and increase fish stocks with the eventual goal of doubling the industry's value to $64m per year. Virunga National Park is also trying to rebuild its tourism revenue, 30 percent of which is re-invested in community projects. Neighbouring Rwanda earns $15m per year from gorilla tourism permits alone.
"Virunga is the cornerstone of development for the region," says Orlando von Einsiedel, who directed a documentary about the park, and previously filmed there for Al Jazeera's environment show, Earthrise. "Despite 20 years of living through warfare, the rangers of Virunga have an incredible vision for their country and infectious optimism," he says. "They go out every day and risk their lives because they know the potential Virunga has to transform their country."
But nurturing a national park back to health in one of the most violent places on earth is no easy feat. On the eve of the documentary's premiere in April 2014, chief warden de Merode was shot and wounded in an ambush by unknown gunmen. The site remains on UNESCO's "World Heritage in Danger" list.
Virunga is the cornerstone of development for the region.
Now, there may be a new threat to the park: oil. DR Congo's government has granted British company SOCO International a permit to explore for oil in a vast area in the eastern part of the country known as "Block V", just over half of which lies within Virunga National Park.
A recent UNESCO report expressed "extreme concern" about the situation, adding that "any oil exploitation inside the property would seriously affect its integrity", and calling on DR Congo's government to revoke the permit. On June 11, SOCO announced it would not drill in Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DR Congo government "agree that such activities are not incompatible with its world heritage status".
However, SOCO's announcement leaves open the possibility that "the park could be declassified or its border changed", says Joanna Natasegara, producer of the Virunga documentary, who maintains that the park is still at risk. "The area where SOCO wants to work is at the heart of fisheries which support tens of thousands of people."
In the documentary, senior warden Mugaruka is filmed donning an undercover camera to investigate SOCO supporters, who appear to offer him bribes. "We cannot stand weak and say: SOCO, go ahead," he says. The documentary's producers, the park, and Human Rights Watch have also raised concerns about links between SOCO representatives or supporters, and rebel groups, and about threats and violence against opponents of oil exploration.
In one undercover recording, a British SOCO security sub-contractor named John expressed his disbelief that the park staff could care that much about "monkeys".
SOCO has denied any role in threats, violence, or bribery and condemned the use of violence and intimidation. It has stated that the sub-contractor John no longer works for the company.
Back in the park, Bauma stayed with his gorillas throughout heavy shelling and gunfire in the park during the conflict between the M23 and the army. The male gorilla, Kaboko, died after becoming ill during the fighting. But Bauma and his team continue to care for the three girls, as well as a baby Matabishi who was found alone on the outskirts of the park. "It is thanks to these animals that this forest continues to be protected," he says. "There are many projects being implemented around the park because of our gorillas."
"You must justify why you are here on this earth," Bauma says. "Gorillas justify why I am here. They are my life. So if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas."
Follow Sylvia Rowley on Twitter: @SylviaJR
Source: Al Jazeera