“All that could happen to me... I will accept it. I am not special.” This is the heart of Rodrigue Mugaruka, warden for the Rwindi Sector of Virunga National Park. And this same heart beats in the rest of the Congolese rangers selflessly serving beside him in Virunga. They are truly faithful and humble people, courageously facing death that they might preserve life.
Virunga National Park lies on the Eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and is Africa’s first and oldest national park. Established in 1925, it is the most biologically diverse protected area in the entire continent. But what makes Virunga special? The park is part of an area in Africa that is home to the last mountain gorillas on earth. Of the approximately 800 mountain gorillas left in the world, around 200 live within the jungles of Virunga.
Throughout its history, the park has faced a great deal of violence and opposition. In 2007, five gorillas from a single family were shot and killed by members of the illegal charcoal trade. Their intentions were simple: destroy the park by destroying the primary reason to protect its resources. Since then, four more gorillas have been killed.
Poaching and the bushmeat trade are always a threat to the park’s creatures as well. In the midst of this, the DRC has faced internal turmoil and civil war. Much of the fighting between the DRC’s national army and the Congolese rebel military group known as M23 has taken place around and within Virunga. In the heat of battle, both people and animals have died.
And yet, the DRC’s internal issues are only the beginning of Virunga’s troubles. A British oil company by the name of SOCO has recently sought to undermine the park’s authority in order to drill for oil within Virunga’s boundary. The means by which SOCO has attempted to carry out this job are extremely controversial and they have only added to the conflict. SOCO has even gone so far as to use M23 in its ventures against the national park, convincing the rebels that they will benefit greatly if the park is developed
In the struggle that has resulted from all of these threats to the park, 130 rangers have lost their lives protecting the park and its animals.
Last year, Grain Media produced a documentary describing the current situation within the park. The film, named after the park, focuses on exposing the tangled mess of hidden deceit, violence, racism, greed, and corruption that threatens to strangle Virunga National Park. In the midst of all the brokenness, however, the courage and steadfastness of the park director, Emmanuel de Merode, and the Congolese rangers standing with him shines brightly. A stunningly beautiful and powerful film, Virunga and has won international awards (best feature documentary at both the Guanajuato International Film Festival and Abu Dhabi Film Festival) and was even nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA.
Creation has a voice and I think if you listen closely you can hear it. Virunga National Park and all of its individual creatures and organisms are calling out loudly. As Christ’s Church, it would be wrong for us to ignore this cry. We belong in the mess, bringing the healing, redemption, and hope of the Gospel to all of the creation.
There is something beautiful and good happening in Virunga National Park in the face of a very great evil. I think it would be helpful for the Church to see it and to consider the implications it might have for the ways we view and enter into conservation. Perhaps conservation is concerned with bigger things than we tend to think. So, I encourage you to attend the Campus Stewardship Committee's showing of Virunga in Mills 160 at 6:00 pm Monday, March 30. Then, live in light of what you see.