Virunga National Park's Chief Warden, Emmanuel de Merode, was shot in a roadside ambush as he was driving from Goma to Rumangabo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The identity and motive of the assailants is unknown at this time. De Merode, a Belgian national, works for the Congolese Institute for Conservation and Nature (ICCN). Established in 1925, Virunga National Park shelters approximately one quarter of the world's remaining 786-800 mountain gorillas.
Constant fighting between rebel factions and the Congolese army has threatened the UNESCO world heritage site and working there is a dangerous undertaking. Since 1996, more than 130 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty.
Cosma Wilungula, the secretary-general of the ICCN told the BBC that De Merode was shot in the thorax, stomach, and legs and is in serious but stable condition. CBC NEWS reports Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said in a statement that two surgeons from the UN's peacekeeping force for Congo took part in an operation on de Merode. He remains at Heal Africa Hospital in Goma where he was initially treated, despite reports that he may be flown to Belgium.
Virunga is home to over 3,000 species of wildlife, and the park's most charismatic resident, the mountain gorilla, is under constant threat from war, and recently oil development by Soco Oil.
The BBC reports that De Merode was returning from a meeting in Goma regarding oil development in Virunga.
Several diplomatic sources said Mr. De Merode had attended a meeting with a state prosecutor in Goma before he was shot, reports the BBC's Maud Jullien from the capital Kinshasa. He had apparently handed the prosecutor sensitive information about oil exploration at Virunga.
It was unusual for him to be driving without an escort.
Soco International has recently come under strong criticism from environmental groups but there is no indication that Soco was behind this attack. The road from Rumangabo to Goma is one of the most dangerous in the world. This writer has traversed it on several occasions, and it is rife with rebel militias and smugglers.
The World Wildlife Fund issued the following statement after the attack.
Emmanuel is a dedicated conservationist putting his life on the line every day to protect Virunga National Park, its rangers, its endangered species and the people that depend on the park for their livelihoods," said Lasse Gustavsson, Executive Director of Conservation at WWF International. "I know how much Emmanuel loves this park. He continues to be a source of inspiration to those around him and I wish him a swift recovery.
Updates and press contacts are available on the Virunga National Park Facebook Page.
In an ironic twist, the film Virunga will premier at Tribeca Film Festival as de Merode recovers from his wounds.
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