Virunga National Park is an amazing, irreplaceable place. Nearly 2 million acres of forests, swamps, savannas and snowfields sprawl over ancient mountains and active volcanoes, teeming with iconic wildlife like chimpanzees, lowland gorillas and about 25 percent of Earth's wild mountain gorillas. It's also home to dozens of heroic rangers and other park officials who risk their lives daily to protect it.
Any national park needs protection, but Virunga is more embattled than most. It's the oldest national park in Africa, founded in 1925 by Belgium's King Albert I, yet it has been roiled by war and poaching for the past 20 years. More than 150 rangers have died in the line of duty since 1996, and rebel forces even briefly took over park offices in 2008. Virunga's fortunes have improved slightly in recent years, but armed rebels still operate in the park, and now a British company is exploring it for oil, too.
A new documentary, "Virunga," vividly illustrates the ongoing struggle to preserve the park. It recently debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and is already drawing high praise from critics. "The result is gorgeous and wrenching," Steve Pond writes in the Wrap, "the indelible chronicle of an impossible but essential fight." The trailer alone is gorgeous and wrenching; check it out above.
In a stark reminder of the dangers that still haunt Virunga, park director and Belgian Prince Emmanuel de Merode also survived an assassination attempt last week, just two days before the film's debut. A trio of gunmen hit de Merode with four bullets as he traveled alone on a main road through the park, but the popular conservationist issued a statement on April 21 assuring his supporters he's OK.
"Unfortunately the attack is not an uncommon incident for Virunga National Park," writes de Merode, who can be seen and heard at several points in the trailer above. "Our rangers are targeted frequently due to their difficult work in protecting the park and its many valuable resources. They continue to face such risks to restore peace and the rule of law to the area and the people in their care."
Emmanuel de Merode in 2008, shortly after he became director of Virunga National Park. (Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
De Merode, who is legally part of Belgium's nobility, grew up in eastern Africa and opted to focus on anthropology rather than aristocracy. He co-founded WildlifeDirect in 2005, a conservation group that supports wildlife rangers in dangerous areas, and became director of Virunga amid war-torn chaos in 2008. He's married to Louise Leakey, granddaughter of the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey, although his wife and children don't live with him in Virunga for safety reasons. In fact, de Merode normally travels alone through the park because he knows he's a target for rebels.
"I hope to recover very soon [and] I am looking forward to getting back to my work with renewed vigour," de Merode writes. "I am deeply thankful for the outpouring of support I have received both from within Congo and internationally, and I hope this can be extended to the overwhelming number of Congolese public servants and their families who suffer injuries or sometimes death in the line of duty."
Before he was shot, de Merode was working on a new sustainable-development plan for the region, titled Virunga Alliance, that would power tens of thousands of homes with hydroelectricity and reduce local communities' reliance on natural resources from the forest. The project reportedly has secured financial backing from both the European Union and philanthropost Howard G. Buffett.
The makers of "Virunga" hope to leverage a distribution deal from their exposure at Tribeca, but for now the movie is only scheduled to appear at a few more upcoming film festivals. In the meantime, you can help support its mission by watching the trailer above and checking out Virunga's official website for more info on projects like Gorilla Orphans and the Fallen Rangers Fund.
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