RODRIGUE Mugaruka Katembo is a national park ranger in DR Congo, widely recognised as one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation – one of the reasons that he has been awarded the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa.
It is well deserved. Virunga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas – about 220 in number – and where Katembo began working as a ranger in 2003 after completing his studies at the University of Bukavu in South Kivu where he studied Ecology and Natural Resource Management.
From 2010 onwards – and during the M23 rebellion and the associated conflict – Katembo put himself at great personal risk to protect Virunga from illegal mining, armed rebels and wildlife poaching. He fought off armed attacks and suffered death threats, was imprisoned, tortured, and faced mock executions. His life was at great risk. At least 140 of his park ranger colleagues were killed by the vested interests groups intent on invading this protected area to extract oil, timber and minerals
But just why are the DR Congo’s protected areas so important? When this question was put to Katembo, he responded: ‘It’s really important for the surrounding communities of protected as they represent the biological diversity of Africa.
‘What’s also really important when protecting wildlife is that you’re also protecting water resources and that is crucial for the local population. Wildlife is also pivotal for the local agriculture adjacent to these protected areas.’
Following death threats and the failed assassination of Virunga’s Park Director in 2014, for his own safety Katembo transferred to Upemba National Park in the south of the country. Upemba National Park – the third biggest in DR Congo – spans 1.75m ha and is home to some of the world’s most abundant and diverse wildlife, including lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo, and the Katanga impala which is endemic to the park.
But, all of this is under threat from illegal mining for gold, emeralds and coltan – a mineral used in the electronics industry and considered to be more valuable than gold.
In direct contravention of national and international laws, corrupt DR Congo government officials illegally issued permits to mining interests. As at September 2016, Katembo had closed down eight illegal coltan mines, removed more than 1,400 small-scale miners and successfully kept mining companies out of Upemba despite their continued attempts to return.
Parts of Upemba have been taken over by the Katanga Mai Mai – a local militia group infamous for mass rape, murder and the forced recruitment of child soldiers. The Mai Mai are heavily armed and are far better equipped than the park staff who have very little equipment or support. As a result, defending the DR Congo’s natural heritage comes at a price and Katembo continues to put his life on the line. Katemba now lives apart from his wife and children for the family’s safety.
Thanks to Katembo’s dedication, wildlife in the park is slowly stabilising – dozens of elephants have returned to the park and zebra numbers are on the rise – but the need for funds to support park rangers is urgent. There are only 160 rangers in Upemba (he says it needs more like 400 to protect it) and they are outnumbered and out-resourced by the Mai Mai militia. For example, there is only one truck to patrol the vast 1.75m ha of Upemba – and there is an urgent need to set up a Widows’ Fund to support the families of fallen park rangers.
If properly funded and secured, lives could be saved and Upemba National Park could become a valuable tourist attraction, protecting wildlife and generating income for local communities, Katemba believes.
‘When Mobutu fell, you had different politicians determined to keep their influence and local support,’ Katemba explains. ‘So, to do that they created different kinds of militias, and to support themselves the militias began poaching wildlife in protected areas.
‘When the Hutus fled Rwanda they came with military equipment and made the situation even more difficult. In 2006, at the start of the democratisation process, you had elections and the political candidates started to say to the communities “vote for me. And if you vote for me we will be able to open the park for agriculture and you will have land”.
‘When you’re in DR Congo and working in remote places, you don’t expect international recognition. This prize will give me the opportunity to make the Upemba situation more visible and appreciated, so as to increase the rangers numbers and also be able to attract more financial resources for their training, to create sustainable development, boost poverty alleviation and also contribute to the fight against climate change.’