Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty
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Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a courageous conservationist who has been working there since 1992. On Thursday, he received the Rolex Explorer of the Year award from the National Geographic Society.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty

A Prince Battles to Save Gorillas Amid Brutal Conflict

Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park and a National Geographic Society Explorer of the Year, talks about the dangerous job of protecting the park and its mountain gorillas.  

Emmanuel de Merode, director and chief warden of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was driving through the forest last year when three men stepped out of the shadows and opened fire. He escaped—but only after being seriously injured.

Violence goes with the territory. Virunga, Africa's oldest national park and a World Heritage site, is one of the most contested zones on Earth. It is also home to all of the DRC's critically endangered mountain gorillas.

On Thursday, de Merode and Innocent Mburanumwe, a veteran park ranger, will receive the Rolex National Geographic Explorers of the Year award on behalf of the rangers of Virunga National Park, whose courage and commitment has helped protect their country's natural treasures.

Virunga has been at the center of the DRC's civil wars for decades. The ongoing conflict decimated the mountain gorilla population and damaged surrounding communities. Thanks to its committed force of rangers—more than 140 have died protecting the park—Virunga is undergoing a resurgence. The mountain gorilla population has increased to 880.

Speaking at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C, on the eve of the awards ceremony, de Merode talks about the day he was nearly killed in an ambush, how a British oil company is further complicating the conservation effort, and why it is crucial to protect mountain gorillas.

How does a Belgian prince end up working in conservation in Africa?

I think the Belgian prince bit is not relevant. But essentially Belgium was born as a country after a rebellion against its colonizers, which was the Netherlands at the time; my ancestors led that rebellion and were given that title in recognition of the role they played in Belgium's independence. But I grew up in Kenya, and that's what motivated me to work in that field. I ended up in the Congo simply because it is a wonderful area for a young conservationist.

Why is Virunga so contested? And how does this affect the park's mountain gorillas?

Virunga is an extreme case of what's happening with many of Africa's parks and natural reserves. These are often areas incredibly rich in wildlife resources, and they have financial value, which invariably creates conflict over access to those resources. That has been accentuated in Virunga because it's at the heart of the armed conflict that has been happening in the eastern Congo since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. That has created a very volatile situation that Virunga's rangers have had to manage for many years, under very difficult circumstances.

You were nearly killed in 2014. Can you describe that incident? And the effect it had on you?

It’s one incident among many, so it hasn’t had an enormous effect on the way we work in Virunga because it’s something our staff have been faced with for over 20 years. I was driving back from Goma on my own, through a forested part of the road, and some gunmen were waiting for my vehicle. As my car approached, they started firing.

I ducked and tried to accelerate but the engine was damaged, so the car stopped. I had a rifle with me, so I took that, but just as I got out of the car, I was hit in the chest and stomach. I was able to get into the forest and fire back. Then I waited for about half an hour before moving back to the road, because I knew I had to get to hospital as fast as possible. In the end, a young Congolese farmer on a motorbike picked me up and got me out of the area.

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In November 2008, conservation authorities in the DRC had their first sighting of a mountain gorilla in more than 15 months. The gorilla population had been decimated by ongoing civil war and violence. Because of the commitment and bravery of its rangers, the gorilla population is now estimated to be 880.

You have attended more than 22 funerals of park rangers. As director of the park, how do you feel when you stand at their graves?

It's the hardest part of my job. As their commanding officer, I feel responsible, because they came into harm's way on my orders. Tragically, it's been a repeated incident, so I'm extremely and very painfully aware of the risks I put my staff in. We've lost 22 of our staff on my watch as director. Seventeen of those were protecting civilians, not wildlife, because as government officers we're responsible for all law enforcement within the park, which makes us responsible for anyone passing through the park. So it's not [just about] the wildlife. It's [also about] peace and stability in the area.

The United Kingdom-based oil firm Soco International is exploring for oil in Virunga, despite strong criticism from environmental organizations. How does this complicate conservation?

It's been an enormous challenge. It's a large multinational company, and there's barely a place on Earth that has successfully overcome the issue of oil extraction within a protected area. That's what we're trying to do in an area that is just recovering from a very violent conflict and where it's extremely difficult to uphold the law, and government institutions remain very fragile.

There have also been acts of extreme violence against those opposed to oil exploration. The bodies of fishermen who opposed it because of the effect it has on their livelihoods were found floating in Lake Edward inside the park the day after they voiced that opposition. These are very serious issues which challenge the notion of how you manage a protected area and uphold the law. It also brings into question the conduct of business in postconflict environments or in conflict-affected areas. [Soco has denied any wrongdoing.]

You had a starring role in the movie Virunga. What effect has the movie had on the situation?

It has had a very powerful effect. One thing we've come to realize is that the institutions responsible for regulating business activities and upholding the law are often quite slow to act, and need to be inspired. That's the role media can have. It has had a pivotal role in protecting the park; we now feel a lot more confident about our ability to continue protecting it.

You have said that "gorillas take on all the positive aspects of being human." Is that why it's important that Virunga is protected?

It's one of the many reasons, but I wouldn't say it's the greatest. The main reason is that we owe it to the people of eastern Congo to uphold the law and ensure there is a degree of justice. Acts of bribery are an extremely serious issue, especially when it leads to extreme acts of violence against that community. So bringing justice with respect to those issues is the primary reason we're so committed to maintaining this campaign to protect the park.

The other reason is, of course, that the park contains within it resources that are incredibly valuable. Not just the mountain gorillas. Its forests and lakes are incredibly rich in fish resources. Those two resources alone have an estimated value of over $70 million a year. That's enough to fund a war, and that's why those resources need to be managed according to the law.

The illegal exploitation of resources is almost universally recognized as the underlying driver behind a civil war that has caused the deaths of over six million people: the most tragic war in terms of human suffering since the Second World War. It's gone largely unreported. So we owe it to the people of eastern Congo to address these issues of natural resource management. That's really what the park is about.

Watch: Emmanuel de Merode spoke to National Geographic after he was named warden at Virunga, in 2008.

The announcement of the 2015 Explorers of the Year is part of National Geographic’s Explorers Week. Learn more about our emerging explorers.