Exposing Exploitation in Virunga

Mother gorilla carrying young on her back through Virunga National Park.

Maisha was kidnapped right after birth, stolen from her family to be sold for profit.

Before she was thrown into a sack and placed into an isolated cave, Maisha likely witnessed the murders of both her parents.

When she was three years old, a dedicated team of caretakers rescued her from her harrowing circumstances and returned her to safety.

Now a 12-year-old resident of Virunga National Park — Africa’s oldest reserve — she revels in the opportunity to play with and show affection for her fellow endangered mountain gorillas, of which fewer than 800 exist worldwide. The 3,000 square-mile landmass in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that she calls home also shelters elephants, hippos, and okapis — species whose rarity increases each day thanks to poachers, like the ones who captured Maisha.

Danger in beauty

Neither Virunga’s abundance of wild animals nor its foundation of seven volcanoes constitutes the most worrisome aspect of the park. The region — renowned for its mineral wealth and innumerable resources — contains a vast supply of oil, meaning that self-interested actors could impose their greedy desires onto the wildlife reserve. In fact, SOCO International — a wealthy British oil production company — did just that, violating Congolese law prohibiting the exploitation of World Heritage Sites for oil.

SOCO executives have been accused of tactics such as violence and bribing to assert their dominance in the park and to silence any opposition. Though they promise that selling oil would enhance the DRC’s wealth and status, they demonstrate an apathetic approach to the preservation of some of the world’s rarest species — including a quarter of the global mountain gorilla population.

Throughout the 2014 Netflix documentary Virunga, which exposed the unethical practices the corporation was engaged in, SOCO employee Captain Feruzi remarks that he doesn’t think humans or animals living in the DRC deserve freedom.

“The best solution, effective for everyone, is to recolonize these countries,” he says.

While SOCO formally withdrew activity from the park after the release of Virunga, the confirmation that oil lies within the confines of Virunga has certainly stirred up some monkey business since then. Selling precious resources could indeed stabilize the fragmented region and contribute to increased financial security, but such a money-driven act has truly life-jeopardizing implications.

Map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa, the location of Virunga National Park.

For the animals

The widespread death of some of thousands of endangered animals would certainly ensue if invaders were to colonize the park, as would the destruction of a renowned, serene, and relatively untouched environment. Imagine the outcry and horror if hundreds of individuals in impoverished nations were killed so that the wealthy could access their resources; well, that’s essentially the type of unjust chaos that unfolds each day in Virunga, with more than 150 dedicated Virunga employees having been murdered in the past decade and likely hundreds more animals having been captured or slaughtered.

In fact, a two-month-long attack on the park in 2007 resulted in the deaths of seven gorillas, and many speculate that Virunga’s former warden committed these crimes in the hopes that he could mine the region for charcoal.

And yet, loyal park rangers risk their lives each day, determined to protect the wildlife at any and all costs, willing to pay even the price of death. Caregiver André Bauma calls the animals he plays with and nourishes each day — including Maisha, who clings to his back wherever he walks — members of his own family.

“They are my life,” he says in Virunga. “So if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas.”

For three weeks each month, Bauma lives at the park away from his wife and son, having sacrificed a more profitable career, institutional education for his child, and proximity to shops and other conveniences to protect these animals. He devotes his life to saving theirs.

“We are constantly threatened, not only by the militias inside the park but also in general by the population," Bauma says. "There is a lot of poverty, so people try to survive. They will try to use the natural resources of the park, whether it be wood to make charcoal, fields for agriculture, or illegal fishing."

Unspoken connection

The parental role he serves in these mountain gorillas’ lives enables him to communicate with the animals, to understand them like a mother would her own child.

“I can hear by their tone of voice if they're scared of something, if they're worried, if there's something wrong with the food, if they feel they're in danger,” he says.

After years of succumbing to these creatures’ demands for piggyback rides, Bauma has developed back issues. The pain, though, serves as a constant reminder that to many helpless beings, he is family.

While Bauma dreads the thought of ever abandoning these animals, he looks forward to the day when they have developed enough independence to be released as a clan into the wild.

“When they were still small, they were really in need of our presence,” he says. “But now they’re grown-ups, and there are some things they don’t need anymore.””

Until that day comes, he will continue to enhance the gorillas’ quality of life, as he risks his own.

The movie cover of the Netflix documentary, "Virunga."

Long way to go

To contribute to oil exploitation in Virunga would not just strip dedicated folks of their livelihood, kill animals, and desecrate a sacred region; to do so would be to terminate the only stable, enduring parental relationship Maisha and countless other rescued animals have ever known.

The documentary Virunga, currently available on Netflix, contains more extensive information about the human and animal rights violations that take place daily in the sacred park. Additionally, Virunga accepts donations that enhance the quality of life for its animals and enable its park rangers to best help endangered species.

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