Under Siege
Inside the Turmoil at Africa’s First National Park
As DRC’s Virunga National Park nears its centennial, neighbors and residents face fear, evictions and an uncertain future.
A preserve for the world’s last mountain gorillas. A haven for armed groups. These words often make it into headlines or become the focus of documentaries about Virunga National Park, a vast conservation area in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But Virunga, as it’s known locally, has more to tell than of gorillas and guerilla warfare.

An international group of naturalists, diplomats and royals creates Albert National Park (now Virunga National Park) as a “world laboratory.” It is Africa’s first national park.

Located in what was then colonial Belgian Congo, the park is conceived as a preserve and research facility for the world’s last sizable population of mountain gorillas. In 1925, the plans grow to include the “preservation” of the nomadic hunter-gatherers (often called Pygmies) living in the park.

The Belgian colonial authorities expand Virunga’s borders at great human cost. Despite later statements that the only people living in the park’s boundaries were about 300 Pygmies, thousands of Hutus and Tutsis — tribes later involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide — are forced out of the park during its expansion.

The Pygmies, however, are allowed to live, hunt and fish in the park, in exchange for being the subjects of anthropological studies.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Virunga’s managers — who live in Brussels — focus on controlling outbreaks of sleeping sickness, a fairly mild disease with late-stage symptoms that locals had long tolerated, caused by the tsetse fly. Under the pretext of eradicating sleeping sickness, fishing bans are enforced and villages around Lake Edward are evicted, according to a book by Congolese academic Paul Vikanza.

In 1935, Belgian park authorities expand Virunga’s borders to include the areas cleared to treat sleeping sickness.

After park authorities move to control and regulate their activities, Pygmies attack park rangers with spears in several skirmishes.

DRC gains independence from Belgium in 1960. In the following decades, the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), which manages the country’s national parks, deteriorates, and ICCN park rangers begin poaching, fishing illegally and producing charcoal to supplement their shrinking wages, according to a 2018 study by Judith Verweijen and Esther Marijnen.

Meanwhile, communities near Virunga become increasingly reliant on the park’s resources due to a rise in poverty and the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization lists Virunga as a World Heritage Site at the Congolese government’s request.

As the Rwandan genocide breaks out, the situation goes from bad to apocalyptic. The forests of Virunga, which lie on the DRC-Rwanda border, become home to hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees, along with thousands of their genocidal enemies.

The United Nations reclassifies Virunga’s World Heritage status as in danger.

Just a few years later, violence erupts again. The First and Second Congo Wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2003) kill an estimated 5 million people — the deadliest conflict since World War II — and lead to massive waves of migration. ( Read about our reporters’ personal experiences here. )

Informal camps for internally displaced people pop up around the park, scarring the landscape. At its peak, Virunga lost an estimated 89 hectares (220 acres) of forest each day, as displaced persons gathered firewood. (Read Global Press Journal’s coverage of deforestation in Virunga here.)

The Congolese government signs a partnership with the African Conservation Fund (now the Virunga Foundation), an NGO registered in London and funded by the European Union. This deal transfers control of the park from the ICCN to the Virunga Foundation until 2040, creating what one EU official described as a “state within a state.”

Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian prince whose ancestor was involved in the park’s management during the colonial period, becomes the chief warden of Virunga National Park and CEO of the Virunga Foundation. De Merode earned his doctorate in biological anthropology from the University College of London and has authored numerous conservation studies.

In a book chapter he wrote on conservation in DRC’s Garamba National Park, de Merode concluded that “the eviction of resident populations could not be justified as a requirement for successful conservation.” However, during his years as Virunga’s chief warden, park rangers launch at least six operations to evict people living and farming within Virunga’s borders.

Unidentified attackers ambush and shoot de Merode hours after he submitted a report on the activities of SOCO, a United Kingdom-based oil company that was pushing for rights to explore Virunga for oil deposits. Several armed groups operate in the park at this time.

A documentary, “Virunga,” is released, highlighting de Merode and his rangers’ efforts to preserve Virunga’s mountain gorillas despite raging conflict in and around the park. The documentary doesn’t mention the rangers’ alleged human rights abuses.

The ICCN makes a highly controversial agreement with a local fishing cooperative, granting the ICCN and de Merode the authority to, among other things, “evacuate” tens of thousands of people living in unauthorized fisheries around Lake Edward. However, a string of protests by fishing communities forces the provincial governor to suspend the agreement. But according to the ICCN, the agreement was never repealed and exists to this day. In September, ICCN park rangers “reclaim” Ndwali — an illegal settlement of farmers in Virunga — from an armed group, according to an ICCN report. During or around the time of the operation, people claiming to be rangers burn the homes and crops of Ndwali farmers and shoot at least one fleeing person. Two months later, the ICCN constructs an airstrip and ranger outpost in Ndwali. Farmers in the area are still demanding that authorities let them farm on their ancestral land and investigate the ICCN’s human rights abuses. (Read the story.) DRC passes a landmark law granting indigenous people such as the Mbuti Pygmies fundamental rights, including the rights to their land, natural resources and more. Article 42 of the law states that if there is a need for relocation or resettlement, authorities will consult and fairly compensate these communities. However, Pygmy communities are still being evicted from the park. (Read the story.) The resurgent armed group M23 takes control of Virunga’s southern sector and forcefully displaces over 500,000 people, many of whom shelter in or around the park. The area has increasingly come under intense and unprecedented pressure from displaced populations who rely on the park’s rich natural resources — and threaten the biodiversity the park is trying to preserve. (Read the story.)

Virunga is located in one of the most densely populated areas of DRC. Over 4 million people live within a day’s walk of its boundaries, including two Global Press Journal reporters — Noella Nyirabihogo and Merveille Kavira Luneghe — who grew up in the region and have told stories of their communities for over a decade.

Their stories have focused on the people expelled from their homes during the park’s creation, and efforts over the years to reclaim their ancestral land. A law that came into force in July 2022 enshrines the rights of indigenous people in DRC, including “the right to the land and natural resources they own, occupy or use.” (Read Nyirabihogo’s coverage of this law here.)

Luneghe spoke with families who found refuge in Virunga from the region’s simmering conflict, only to be expelled by park rangers at gunpoint. (Read her coverage of forced displacement here.)

To supplement our journalists’ long history of reporting from eastern DRC, this timeline dives into the history of Virunga — from its troubled origins to who runs it and why.

In DRC’s Most Biodiverse Area, Farmers and Park Rangers Battle for Control

North Kivu’s growing population has made the fertile lands in Virunga National Park a coveted resource — but those who farm there risk violent consequences.

Thousands Have Taken Refuge Near DRC’s Virunga National Park. Can the Park Survive?

Deforestation threatens the park’s future — but the people cutting its trees are fighting for survival themselves.

Once ‘Masters of the Forest,’ DRC’s Pygmy Community Is Being Forced Out of National Park

Despite a 2022 law that protects indigenous land rights, evictions from Virunga National Park leave little access to traditional ways of life.