Inside the Fight to Save One of the World’s Most Dangerous Parks

Virunga, one of the wonders of Africa, is home to rare gorillas—and plagued by violence and economic tension.

When the ranger studied the ragtag crew he was supervising, seven young men repairing a rugged road that leads to Virunga National Park, it did not take much to see what he had in common with them. They were all born and raised in or around the park on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. None of them were rich. None of them would ever be rich. All of them had seen loved ones fall by the capricious machete stroke of a war with murky logic and no foreseeable end.

And now here they all were, working for the park, filling potholes and clearing drainage ditches in the furtherance of something considerably more profound than nine miles of rough gravel. The road joins the Bukima ranger post with tourists from the West, whose money helps support Africa’s oldest national park. These visitors come here principally to fulfill a dream—namely, to stand mere feet away from the park’s illustrious residents, the rare mountain gorillas.

Less famous but just as important, the Bukima road connects farmers outside the park with village markets and the city of Goma beyond. For years it had been a morass of large rocks and quicksand-like mud. Its impassability made hard lives that much harder. But now the park was pouring money into the road’s reconstruction. And local men like these were repairing it. So the road also constituted a bond, albeit a slender one, between the region’s most visible national institution and villagers who view the park with hostility and, at times, rage, believing the land should still belong to them.

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