The Fight to Save Africa’s Oldest National Park
At 3.45pm on April 15 Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian-born, British-educated head of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic ofCongo, left the city of Goma for the 90-minute drive north to the headquarters of Virunga in Rumangabo. The road was once paved, but two decades of constant warfare in this part of eastern Congo have taken their toll. Today it is a ribbon of rock and rutted mud, scarcely negotiable except in four-wheel-drive vehicles.
De Merode was alone in a Land Rover marked with Virunga’s emblem, a mountain gorilla. After 45 minutes he reached one of the few stretches flanked not by wooden shacks and swarms of people engaged in the daily grind of survival, but by dense tropical vegetation. He saw a man to his right lift an AK-47 and open fire. Others shot from the opposite side. Eight bullets hit the vehicle. Four smashed through the windscreen. One hit him in the chest, breaking four ribs, puncturing his right lung and passing through his liver. A second went through his abdomen.
The Land Rover’s engine died. De Merode grabbed his own AK-47, clambered out and took cover in the trees. He fired wildly until his assailants fled. ‘I stayed there 20 minutes, but knew I was quite badly wounded and if I didn’t get to a hospital it didn’t look good,’ he recalls. Two drivers saw his blood-soaked clothes and refused to stop. Eventually he flagged down a motorcyclist. Several vehicles and two hours later de Merode reached a hospital in Goma. He was subsequently airlifted to Nairobi. He admits he is lucky to be alive. ‘If the bullet had hit an inch to the left I probably wouldn’t have made it. At best I’d have been paralysed and wouldn’t have been able to run into the forest so they’d have got me.’
But five months on, who ‘they’ are remains a mystery.